By Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan
President Barack Obama told House Republicans in a rare meeting that he doesn't "have a political agenda at this point," and said he wants to talk to the GOP about budget issues, "smart immigration reform," guns and international relations, namely support for Israel.
The meeting is the first opportunity House Republicans have had in two years to directly confront Obama with their concerns as a group. Obama had previously negotiated directly with Boehner in an unsuccessful attempt to reach a grand bargain to slash the deficit, but rank-and-file conservatives were unhappy about the one-on-one sessions.
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) -- the Republican Policy Committee chairman -- brought up a familiar concern for House Republicans: that Obama is always campaigning.
He asked about Organizing for Action's (OFA) meeting. He complained that Obama called Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) before Boehner on election night. Obama said that wasn't true and that he had called Boehner, but Boehner had gone to sleep, according to a source familiar with the meeting. Boehner said the president was right, the source said.
Lankford argued that Obama is so focused on defeating House Republicans instead of "saving the next generation" from debt problems. He then mentioned Bill Clinton working successfully to balance the budget and asked if he'd commit to balancing the budget in 10 years, as Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget, released yesterday, dictates.
"OFA is organized around issues rather than 2014," Obama said in a lengthy, 10-minute answer to Lankford, according to a source inside the meeting.
Obama said Democrats aren't so savvy as to always be thinking about the next election.
"We are not that smart," Obama told the Republican. "We're not thinking in those ways."
Obama, according to a source in the room, said Congress shouldn't balance the budget in 10 years.
"We can't afford huge cuts in discretionary spending," Obama said. He added that he wants to tackle long-term debt but "some additional revenue is needed" to do entitlement reform. Tax hikes have been the key sticking point between the White House and Republicans over reaching a deal to slash the deficit.
"He doesn't want to balance the budget in ten years and he wants tax increases, but other than that we're close," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
Issa said the president was warmly welcomed, and gave long answers.
Some Republicans said they were impressed with the president's willingness to engage on substance, including aspects of the budget and entitlements -- and to extend olive branches.
"I think he's being meaty unlike in past meetings," one veteran lawmaker said from inside the meeting. "Did he swallow a bipartisan pill?"
Rep. Candice Miller, a moderate Michigan Republican, said Obama shouldn't "believe everything the DCCC says about us."
She also asked why the the White House decided to suspend White House tours, citing the sequester. Why not cancel the White House-Congressional picnic, as well?
Obama, according to a source in the room, said it the decision to suspend the tours was made by the Secret Service. The president said that the Secret Service would have had to furlough more people in order to keep the tours going.
Rep. Steve Scalise, the Louisianan who chairs the conservative Republican Study Committee, asked Obama about the Keystone Pipeline, energy exploration, health care and a GAO report on programs the government can eliminate.
"With respect to Keystone I would expect a decision will be made rather promptly," Obama said, according to a source in the room. "This has been more of a symbolic issue."
Ways and Means chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) praised Obama for supporting "Medicare capping for high net worth people" and "chain CPI on Social Security."
He then asked Obama why the Congress doesn't move forward and vote on those proposals since the two sides agree on them. Obama answered, the sources in the room said, by talking about tax reform and raising more revenue.
Obama also said "politically it's hard for me to justify" entitlement reform without more tax revenue.
Freshman Indiana Rep. Jackie Walorski asked why Obama is planning to exclude interest payments in his budget. Why not balance a budget like families are doing, she asked.
"America is not a family," Obama said, before restating his position on budgets.
"I know this caucus hates Obamacare" but I'll make things shorter by not debating that, Obama said.
Obama then noted white smoke was coming from the Vatican as cardinals had picked a new pope. Missouri Rep. Billy Long then quipped: "Does that mean White House tours are opened?" Everyone laughed.
The last time Obama met with the House GOP was at their retreat in 2010, where cameras captured the president speaking the group.
Two sources inside the room said that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) got much heartier applause than the president at a meeting with congressional Republicans on Wednesday. But another source said that both the speaker and Obama got standing ovations.
Wednesday's visit, held in the Capitol basement, is scheduled to be one hour. Boehner was set to give a brief introduction, before turning the floor over to McMorris Rodgers, who will introduce Obama.
Lawmakers were told to be in HC-5, their meeting room, by 1:15 p.m., ahead of the1:30 p.m. meeting, sources said. No food will be served, as extra chairs are needed to accommodate what's expected to be a larger-than-usual crowd. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the GOP conference chairwoman, told her colleagues Wednesday morning at the Capitol Hill Club that they should not take pictures of the president or ask him for his autograph when he speaks to them in the Capitol basement.
The meeting is part of an aggressive outreach effort by the president to Hill lawmakers to try and find common ground on the deficit. On Tuesday, Obama met with Senate Democrats, and on Thursday, he will meet with Senate Republicans and House Democrats.
GOP leadership aides expect lawmakers to ask Obama somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four questions. GOP leadership originally mulled an open mic session with the president, but that idea was scratched.
Before Obama comes to the Hill, House Republicans held an unannounced meeting for their members at 9 a.m. at the Capitol Hill Club, a GOP hangout next to the Republican National Committee headquarters.
The meeting almost certainly focused on budgetary matters, including Ryan's 2014 budget -- which was introduced on Tuesday -- and tax reform. According to GOP sources, when Obama's aides first requested the meeting with House Republicans, they said he wanted to come to Capitol Hill to focus on something completely different: his upcoming trip to Israel.
Obama met with Senate Democrats on the Hill on Tuesday.
He embraced much of the the Senate Democrats' budget and said his own spending plan, which he will roll out on April 8, will be similar.
The president also said that entitlement programs must be protected for future generations, but argued that Social Security and Medicare -- big drivers of federal spending -- won't survive intact for the long haul. But he said that Democrats shouldn't consider doing so unless Republicans agree to put tax hikes on the table.
More revenue has been the key sticking point in negotiations between Obama and congressional Republicans over a grand bargain deal to slash the deficit. Obama favors a balanced approach that includes spending cuts and tax hikes by closing loopholes in the Tax Code. Republicans say they won't budget on taxes after reaching a fiscal cliff deal that allowed tax hikes on families who make more than $450,000, though they are open to an overhaul of the Tax Code that would lower rates for individuals and corporations.