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President Obama is dining with quite a few members of Congress these days. Today, it was lunch with Senate Democrats, and that's the first of three visits he'll be making to Capitol Hill this week. The House and Senate budgets will present very different views on taxes and spending, and the president's meetings are aimed at passing a so-called grand bargain, a deal to reduce the deficit.
Joining me now is NPR's Ailsa Chang to talk about what's going on. And, Ailsa, this charm offensive - this lunchtime diplomacy that the president is engaged in - when you talk to lawmakers, are you getting some sense that it will have some effect?
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Well, right now, there is basically a let's-just-wait-and-see attitude about the whole thing. Some Republican senators I talked to said, you know, it's about time Obama made these kinds of overtures on the Hill, they're long overdue, it's at least a way to get the conversation going, a jumping-off point. But how sincere everyone will be at actually moving that conversation forward is still unknown.
Because basically, the problem is this. There is a deep, fundamental rift between the Democrats and Republicans. Republicans want to slash federal spending and not raise taxes. Both House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have been adamant about this, explicit about this. Obama, on the other hand, is saying there cannot be any deficit reduction without higher taxes.
So these visits are ostensibly a way to start doing the delicate dance that might get the parties to meet in the middle. As you referred to in the intro, he's making - he's meeting with House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans as well this week. He's making all the rounds. But today, the grand bargain wasn't the only thing discussed at the lunch.
BLOCK: OK. What else was on the agenda then?
CHANG: Well, according to several senators, Obama brought up immigration reform and was very upbeat about it, apparently, expecting reform to come pretty soon on that front. He spoke a smidgeon about gun control legislation but barely. There was also some discussion about drones and trying to continue transparency there. But most of the conversation was gobbled up with the budget and spending and whether both sides can come to an agreement.
Tom Harkin from Iowa said one of things that struck him most about what Obama said today was that it's going to be up to the Republicans to move if this grand bargain is ever to happen.
SENATOR TOM HARKIN: The president has basically said, look, we have staked out a position on this that we believe is sort of in the center, where the American people are. And if the Republicans want to pull us more to the right, we're not going there.
BLOCK: Well, Ailsa, apart from the higher taxes that the president had said he wants, what is the position that he's staked out, this position in the center, as Tom Harkin's referring to it.
CHANG: Right. Obama has actually said he's willing to consider certain cuts to entitlement benefits that many Democrats do not like at all. The president has suggested he's game for reducing cost-of-living increases for Social Security by basically measuring inflation differently in a less generous way. He's also been receptive to having higher-income Medicare recipients pay more than lower-income ones.
BLOCK: And what's the response been from the Senate Democrats?
CHANG: Some are staunchly against any cuts to Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, including raising the retirement age or cutting the cost of living adjustments. These are the safety net programs they say a lot of their constituents want and need. And a lot of Democrats say those kinds of entitlement spending cuts would strike at the heart of their party.
Now, Bernie Sanders, who's actually an independent from Vermont, he's been one of the most - the one of the people most vehemently against cutting entitlement spending. I asked him, would you still stick to that position if it meant never reaching a so-called grand bargain?
SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS: Come on, there's nothing magical about the word grand bargain. The question is what is in the grand bargain. And if we could have a grand bargain which raises substantial revenue by doing away with corporate loopholes at a time when corporations are enjoying record-breaking profits, if we could have a grand bargain which protects Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, it would be great.
BLOCK: And one last thing, Ailsa, there's also been a lot of talk this week about budgets and continuing resolutions. Tell us about that.
CHANG: Yeah. There's a lot of lingo flying around these days. Both the Senate and the House are talking about budgets. And it's important for everybody to understand that these budgets are totally aspirational. They don't actually spend any money.
The bills that allow the government to function, those are also being debated this week in the form of what's called a continuing resolution. And that's going to provide the federal government about a trillion dollars through the end of September. Now, as we've all been hearing over and over again, the government runs out of money on March 27, but both the House and the Senate are planning to go on their spring break at the end of next week. So if they don't hash out a continuing resolution before they leave, they're going to have to give up some or all of their break.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Ailsa Chang at the Capitol. Ailsa, thanks.
CHANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.