By Kathleen Hunter and James Rowley
The Washington Post
WASHIGTON — President Barack Obama told Senate Democrats that they should be open to changes in entitlement programs to achieve a long-term budget deal, according to several lawmakers who attended a meeting with him on Capitol Hill today.
Iowa Senator Tom Harkin said Obama told Democrats during the 90-minute meeting that he wanted a broad, bipartisan deficit-reduction deal this year. Harkin said Obama rebuffed his demand, joined by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, for an assurance that Medicare and Social Security benefits would be remain untouched in any "grand bargain" agreement.
"Of course some of us responded 'yes, but, what is in that grand bargain?'" because "we don't want to start whacking away at Social Security or Medicare," Harkin told reporters. "He didn't make a commitment but he seemed to indicate that, yes, there are other ways of solving the entitlement problems without doing that."
Obama's meeting with Senate Democrats marked the start of three days of meetings the president has with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. He holds closed-door meetings tomorrow with House Republicans and on March 14 will meet with Senate Republicans and House Democrats. Obama didn't make a statement while entering or leaving the meeting.
Asked following the meeting if he could support increasing the eligibility age for Medicare, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin declined to answer directly. Instead he said he liked that Obama "is taking a very pragmatic approach" to entitlements.
"We're not going to be, as Democrats, changing our core values on Medicare or Social Security," Manchin said. "But with that, running more efficiently, looking at things that do make sense, I think he's looking at that."
Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu described Obama as "very positive, very upbeat," about the prospects for reaching a bipartisan budget deal. "He was very optimistic about working with Democrats and Republicans to give the country a path forward for growth," Landrieu said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Senate Republicans were looking forward to meeting with Obama and welcomed what he described as a "charm offensive."
McConnell said a deadline this summer to raise the federal debt ceiling could provide an opportunity to strike a long- elusive budget accord.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters following the lunch that Republicans shouldn't regard Obama's words as an official offer to change entitlements since Republican congressional leaders have previously indicated they are "willing to do certain things" only to renege later.
"The Republicans never get further than that," Reid said. "And they take these things that are talked about in abstract and say that's what we've agreed to. We haven't agreed to any of that."