WASHINGTON — Efforts to stave off a late March government shutdown shifted to the Senate after House Republicans swiftly passed legislation to keep federal agencies running, while also easing some effects of $85 billion in budget cuts.
The House legislation, approved Wednesday on a bipartisan vote, is the first step toward averting a possible fiscal showdown this month. If another budget crisis can be avoided, it could clear the way for lawmakers and President Barack Obama to restart talks on a longer-term deficit reduction plan.
That was Obama’s focus during a rare dinner with a dozen Republican senators Wednesday night at a hotel near the White House and seemed certain to be Topic A Thursday when Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and last year’s GOP vice presidential nominee, joined the president for lunch Thursday at the White House.
House Speaker John Boehner — who has not been among the Republicans the president has reached out to in recent days — said Obama’s recent overtures were a “hopeful sign” that progress could be made in breaking the impasse over how to reduce the federal deficit. Still, he said those efforts wouldn’t get very far if Obama continues to insist on tax increases.
While no real breakthroughs appeared to emerge from Wednesday’s two-hour meal, the mere fact that it happened was significant given the lack of direct engagement between Obama and rank-and-file Republicans over the past two years.
White House and congressional aides said the president and lawmakers had a good exchange of ideas centered on how they could work together to tackle the nation’s fiscal problems.
“It was, I thought, a very sincere discussion,” Sen. Bob Corker, one the dinner attendees, said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. “Everybody laid their cards on the table. I thought it was constructive.”
“I do think it helped a lay a foundation that maybe sometime between now and when the debt ceiling hits, which is really around the first of August or that time frame, maybe we’ll get to a much broader and deeper deal as it relates to solving our fiscal problems, ” Corker, R-Tenn., said.
He said that while both sides emphasize different components of a long-term deficit reduction deal, “there is more commonality than people think.”