President Obama meets with his Cabinet at the White House. He also has been… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- President Obama has been phoning Republican senators in recent days in search of what he called a “common sense" caucus on budget issues, even as House Republicans unveiled legislation Monday to lock in the "sequester" cuts for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Of particular note was Obama’s outreach to Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the former director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, who is widely seen as one of the GOP’s top fiscal experts in the Senate. Portman played a key role as surrogate for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the pivotal swing state of Ohio during last year’s election.
Obama also connected Monday with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, perhaps the last of the remaining moderate Republicans in the Senate, and spoke over the weekend with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, another fiscal leader.
Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the conservative budget hawk, also has had two conversations with the president over the past week – but he is not disclosing the topics.
“They had a good discussion about the need for a bipartisan agreement on several critical issues including the unsustainable $16.4-trillion debt and sequestration,” Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley said. “She encouraged further discussions of a substantive nature.”
Corker indicated “he would like to be a part of a constructive resolution,” said spokeswoman Laura Herzog.
The president’s efforts come after he invited top Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina to the White House last week, and as Democrats and Republicans have allowed the $85 billion in sequester cuts both sides had decried to take hold.
The House is set to vote later this week to lock those reductions in through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Legislation is needed because the government is operating on a temporary funding measure that expires on March 27, and failure to come to an agreement on a new one would lead to a full-scale government shutdown the parties now hope to avoid.
The bill wold hold the government to the lower spending levels, a victory for conservative Republicans who have been unable this year to force spending cuts any other way.
While both sides publicly have agreed to set down arms, avoiding a shutdown is not certain as details of the legislation emerge.
Republicans in the House have rearranged the defense cuts and also tacked on provisions to ensure particular programs are spared: No staff level reductions for the Border Patrol, FBI and detention of illegal immigrants. Federal workers would continue to have their salaries frozen, as would members of Congress.
Some of those adjustments have brought protests from Democrats, who have the majority in the Senate and are preparing an alternative measure that would also reorder cuts among the domestic accounts.
It is unclear whether either chamber would accept the other’s work, which could lead to a standoff.
At the same time, Congress and the White House are looking ahead to summer, when Republicans are poised to push Obama back to the negotiating table once the president asks Congress to raise the debt limit.
Fast-forwarding to that debate, Obama has rekindled interest in striking a “grand bargain” that would bring down the nation’s deficits with what he has called a “balanced” approach. Such a deal would involve the president’s preference for closing tax loopholes on wealthy Americans and corporations while cutting spending, as Republicans want, on Medicare and other safety net programs. It is a deal that has eluded the president in past talks.
“I do know that there are Republicans in Congress who, privately at least, say that they would rather close tax loopholes than let these cuts go through,” Obama said late last week.
“I know that there are Democrats who’d rather do smart entitlement reform than let these cuts go through. So there is a caucus of common sense up on Capitol Hill. It’s just -- it’s a silent group right now, and we want to make sure that their voices start getting heard.”
Missing, so far, from the president’s phone list were other notable budget hawks, including Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania.
On the Democratic side, the president has been in conversation with Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the influential chairman of the Finance Committee, and others.
“We’re talking,” Baucus said Monday.