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On verge of budget fight, Obama visits Congress

President Obama is headed to the Capitol today to meet with Senate Democrats - the first of three consecutive trips for Mr. Obama to the Hill over three days as he continues his outreach to Congress.

His visit comes as Washington girds for weeks of warfare over the budget for next year and beyond as both House and Senate Budget Committees this week take up blueprints for the upcoming 2014 budget year.

The first salvo in that battle is coming from House Republicans poised to release on Tuesday a now-familiar budget featuring gestures to block Obamacare, turn Medicare into a voucher-like program for future retirees and sharply curb Medicaid and domestic agency budgets. Such ideas are dead on arrival with Obama and Democrats controlling the Senate, but will - in concert with new taxes on the wealthy enacted in January - allow Republicans to propose a budget that would come to balance within 10 years.

"We think we owe the American people a balanced budget," House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan said on "Fox News Sunday."

Senate Democrats are countering on Wednesday with a budget plan mixing tax increases, cuts to the Pentagon and relatively modest cuts to domestic programs. The measure would not reach balance, but it would undo automatic budget cuts that started taking effect this month and largely leaves alone rapidly growing benefit programs like Medicare.

Mr. Obama's own budget has been delayed repeatedly this year, and it is not clear if he intends to release it before the House and Senate hold their debates this month.

"It's being worked on," White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. "We are obviously watching Congress for budget proposals that will be put forward in both houses, and we will work with Congress in these conversations."

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The upcoming debate over the long-term budgetary future promises to be stoutly partisan, even as Mr. Obama is undertaking outreach to rank-and-file Republicans in hopes of sowing the seeds for a bipartisan "grand bargain" on the budget this year after two failed attempts to strike agreement with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. In addition to his meeting with Senate Democrats today, the president will huddle with House Republicans on Wednesday and, on Thursday, with Senate Republicans and House Democrats.

Ryan, the GOP's 2012 vice presidential nominee and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, lauded Mr. Obama's so-called "charm offensive" amid the most caging gridlock in modern congressional history. The president's wine-and-dine effort with a dozen Senate Republicans last week at the Jefferson Hotel and subsequent outreach to Ryan, individually, over broiled sea bass at the White House, he said, did not go unnoticed.

"This is the first time I've ever had a conversation with the president lasting more than, say, two minutes or televised exchanges," Ryan said. "I've never really had a conversation with him, on these issues before. I am excited that we had the conversation. We had a very frank exchange."

Meantime, Senate Democrats are preparing a separate catchall government funding bill that denies Mr. Obama money for implementing signature first-term accomplishments like new regulations on Wall Street and his expansion of government health care subsidies but gives Democrats modest additional funding for domestic priorities like health research.

The measure is the product of bipartisan negotiations and is the legislative vehicle to fund the day-to-day operations of government through Sept. 30 - and prevent a government shutdown when current funding runs out March 27.

Passage in the Senate this week would presage an end to a mostly overlooked battle between House Republicans and Mr. Obama and his Senate Democratic allies over the annual spending bills required to fund federal agency operations.

The wrap-up spending bill for the half-completed fiscal year released Monday, however, is another matter entirely. It's a lowest common denominator approach that gives the Pentagon much-sought relief for readiness accounts but adds money sought by Democrats like Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., for domestic programs such as Head Start, health research, transportation and housing.

The Senate measure would award seven Cabinet departments - including Defense, Commerce, Justice, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs - with their line-by-line detailed budgets, but would leave the rest of the government running on autopilot at current levels. All domestic agencies except for Veterans Affairs would then be subject to a 5 percent across-the-board cut while the Pentagon would bear an 8 percent cut.

Mikulski needs GOP votes to pass the measure through the Senate, which Democrats control with 55 votes but where 60 votes are required for virtually every piece of substantive legislation. Using their leverage, Republicans have denied a White House request for almost $1 billion to help set up state health-care exchanges to implement Obamacare as well as smaller requests for financial regulators to implement the 2010 Dodd-Frank law overhauling regulation of Wall St. and for the IRS to police tax returns.

It is hoped that the pre-negotiated Senate measure could return to the House - which passed a different catchall spending bill last week - and pass through that chamber unchanged and be sent on to Mr. Obama well in time to avert a politically disastrous government shutdown.