Don’t get too starry-eyed about President Obama’s dinner on Wednesday night with 12 Republican senators to talk about the budget.
The meal at the swanky Jefferson Hotel in Washington ended with a thumbs up from Arizona’s John McCain and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., also described the dinner as “candid,” “very cordial” and “substantitve” — but at a Thursday afternoon speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation, he described what’s ahead in quasi-militaristic terms.
Judging by Toomey’s remarks, the best sign of genuine progress may be when Republicans and Democrats start framing the issues along the same lines. The Republicans view almost everything through the lens of spending, whereas Democrats speak about the need to protect the middle class. Until these messages begin to converge, these tete-a-tetes are about building a relationship rather than hammering out a deal.
Toomey described what lies ahead as a fight to cut expenditures. Each issue for him – the continuing resolution the Senate must pass to fund government; the sequester; the debt limit in May; and the 2014 budget – revolves around how many dollars the government pushes out. “These fights are all about spending,” Toomey said. “These are different battlegrounds in the same war.”
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Toomey concluded, “We can win this,” a tone that is slightly different than the one from the president: He recently said there are no winners or losers from the $85 billion in sequester cuts that began last week.
As for the battle ahead on the 2014 budget, Obama has previously considered as much as $400 billion in cuts to Medicare over the next decade and linking spending on programs including Social Security to less generous measures of inflation. So the fundamental question is over how much Obama will reduce spending, not if he will.
The last apples-to-apples budget comparison in 2012 showed Republicans are willing to cut $5.3 trillion more in spending over 10 years than Obama.
Oklahoma’s Sen. Coburn, a medical doctor, portrayed the dinner as a chance to mend relations with the White House. “If you’ve had years of someone putting their fingers in your eyes,” he told MSNBC, “it’s going to take some healing.”
Toomey did bring up tax reform at the dinner. He stressed, however, that the revenue increases he floated in 2011 as a member of the super committee were now off the table, since the hundreds of billions they would have generated would have been in return for extending all of the tax rates first lowered by George W. Bush.
As part of a deal to keep all the rates from increasing this year, Obama reached a settlement at the start of this year that raised the top rate to 39.6 percent from 36 percent on household incomes above $450,000.
White House press secretary Jay Carney quoted the president as saying of the meal, “There seems to be sincere interest in avoiding constant crisis.” But in a sign of how much healing remains, Carney declined to provide additional details about the dinner in order “to foster an environment where these conversations are productive.”