"I have not taken Medicare off the table, but the president has,"… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — Congressional leaders and the Obama administration began steering around a risky confrontation over the federal budget, as Republicans conceded that their plan to eventually privatize Medicare was not politically possible any time soon.
The shift came as talks opened Thursday between Vice President Joe Biden and congressional leaders over how to shrink the deficit.
"I have not taken Medicare off the table, but the president has," Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader, who represented House Republicans at the meeting with Biden, told reporters afterward. "The reality is this president has excoriated our budget plan and the Medicare proposal."
In lieu of such an ambitious plan, Republicans are pressing for a series of steep but less dramatic spending cuts as their top deficit-reduction strategy. Both sides also talked of making a commitment to long-term budget cuts that would be enforced by so-called trigger mechanisms that could automatically impose deficit reductions if Congress failed to act in years to come.
Such mechanisms would postpone many of the most difficult budget decisions until after the next election.
Before Congress began its mid-April recess, the two sides had appeared to be heading toward a showdown over the budget and the government's borrowing limit. Thursday's comments indicated a shift, and came against a political background that has changed substantially in the intervening weeks. Obama has benefited from rising poll numbers, and Republicans have been pummeled by angry voters at town hall meetings and targeted in Democratic ads accusing them of seeking to destroy Medicare.
Despite signs of a more accommodating mood, both sides expect weeks of hard bargaining and political theatrics between now and a vote on raising the borrowing limit — something Congress will have to face before the end of July.
Deep divisions remain over tax hikes and spending cuts, and both parties are divided internally over how much to compromise. But, in a sign of the seriousness of the effort to rein in deficit spending, the two sides agreed to meet again early next week.
"We had a good, productive first meeting today," Biden said.
The latest proposals were not formally presented at Thursday's session, which officials described as a meeting to review starting points for discussion. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) insisted the Republican budget plan passed last month, with its deep domestic spending cuts and Medicare changes, remains the party's opening position.
But it was clear that GOP leaders were acceding to the reality that such a far-reaching proposal could not be passed in the next few months. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which plays an instrumental role in advancing legislation, said he had no plans to take up the Medicare proposal.
"I'm not really interested in just laying down more markers," Camp said at a briefing hosted by the policy journal Health Affairs. "I'd rather have the committee working with the president and with the Senate, focused on savings and reforms that can be signed into law."
White House officials commended GOP efforts to advance proposals that both sides could discuss.
"The necessity to set aside maximalist positions is paramount if you're trying to reach common ground and find a consensus around some achievable goal," Obama's press secretary, Jay Carney, said Thursday. "So we welcome any efforts, indications, that parties to these negotiations are searching for common ground, and look forward to these talks getting underway and to having them produce a result."
Those familiar with the talks cautioned that Thursday's meeting was the first of many negotiations as administration officials ask Congress to raise the nation's debt limit by Aug. 2. The national debt ceiling has been raised routinely, and it nearly doubled, to almost $11 trillion, under President George W. Bush, but the votes are unpopular.
This year, House Republicans are demanding budget reforms and spending cuts in exchange for their vote, a stance that has drawn the White House into the deficit-cutting exercise.
Without an increase in the debt limit, economists warn of a financial crisis that would throw the economy into turmoil and cause interest rates to spike.
Talks are likely to be tense and fragile, as were negotiations over the budget, which ended in a midnight vote that narrowly averted a government shutdown.
Even with spending cuts, many conservative Republican lawmakers oppose increasing the debt ceiling. Yet, leaders on both sides said they understand the gravity of the issue, and want to avoid agitating jumpy financial markets as negotiations continue.
But differences remain. While both sides want to reduce deficits, Democrats want increases in tax revenue as well as spending cuts.