Obama takes political heat, in person, from House GOP

President Obama turns to reporters as he leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2013, after his closed-door meeting with House Speaker John Boehner and Republican lawmakers to discuss the budget.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The first question to President Obama during his closed-door meeting with House Republicans, according to those in the room, had to deal with perceived political favoritism to Democrats and the deep-seated fear within the GOP that White House political calculations trump all other concerns.

Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., opened the question and answer session - supervised by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Wash. - by registering a complaint. Lankford wanted to know why on election night, Mr. Obama called Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, before he called House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. Lankford's point was that it appeared to many Republicans that Mr. Obama couldn't bask for even a night in re-election before turning his eye toward the mid-term elections in 2014.

Mr. Obama admitted he called Israel but said he called Boehner first. But Boehner was unavailable.

Silence hung momentarily before Boehner interjected, drawing waves of laughter when he admitted he missed Mr. Obama's first call because he had already gone to sleep.

Lankford also noted Mr. Obama was meeting House Republicans the same day he was going to address Organizing for America, a non-partisan group managed by top aides to the president's re-election campaign and devoted entirely to advancing the White House legislative agenda.

Mr. Obama tried to quiet Republican angst by assuring them he'd run his last campaign. He also told Republicans that if he really wanted to devote all his attention to Democrats regaining control of the House is 2014 he wouldn't push for a bipartisan solution to immigration reform. Obama said the sharper political move would be to let that issue fester and use it against Republicans.

The president spent an hour and a half with the House Republicans. About halfway through the session, Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors handed Mr. Obama a note informing him white smoke above the Sistine Chapel indicated the election of a new pope. "We have white smoke," Obama said. Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., asked if that meant the White House was open for tours. Mr. Obama said no, but the Vatican was.

House Republicans asked the president eight questions. Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, asked Mr. Obama why he wouldn't just cut a deal with Republicans now to reduce cost-of-living-adjustments for Social Security and other federal pensions.

The president said he still favors using a less generous formula to calculate those cost-of-living-adjustments through what's known as chained or superlative CPI (Consumer Price Index). But Mr. Obama added he would only do that in the context of Republicans agreeing to raise more revenue for deficit reduction through the closing of tax loopholes. Recent estimates project $300 billion in savings over ten years by shifting to a newer, less-generous cost-of-living formula for Social Security and other federal pensions.

A day after several White House officials trashed Rep. Paul Ryan's budget as riddled with gimmicks and a threat to economic growth, Mr. Obama nevertheless praised Ryan during the meeting as a serious player on budget issues. The president in no way signaled agreement with Ryan but said he took seriously Ryan's breadth of knowledge on budget issues.

Mr. Obama took a question on the Keystone XL pipeline and said a decision on final administration approval would happen soon. He didn't prejudge the decision.

The president was accompanied by Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Nabors, and his top congressional liaison Miguel Rodriguez.