CORRECTION: The original version of this report gave an incorrect day for the meeting.
With time running out before the U.S. defaults on its debts, President Obama met with the House Republican Conference on Wednesday, and as GOP members emerged from the session they described talks that were modestly cordial and, well, not terribly productive.
The Republicans arrived in a convoy of navy blue tour buses more befitting a spring-break tour of the capital monuments than a hard-headed negotiation. But this was serious business, and both the president and the GOP understand that the time for coming up with a debt-ceiling compromise is growing short.
"Let's not kick the can down the road," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, quoted himself as saying to the president, meaning the time had come for spending cuts.
(PICTURES: Six Consequences of Not Raising the Debt Ceiling)
Eager to show some measure of compromise, White House press secretary Jay Carney described the meeting by saying that the president agreed with some of the Republican assessments, including a statement by Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, that “Any day Republicans and Democrats are actually having a dialogue, this is a good day.”
Does that signal progress? Not really. “That doesn't mean we don't disagree on some fundamental issues—of course we do,” Carney said.
In a somewhat odd twist, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said that he walked the president through his much-discussed entitlement-reform plan. "I simply explained what this plan is and how it works," Ryan said, referring to the oft-discussed plan. "It’s been misdescribed by the president and many others.”
Ryan said Obama didn’t indicate whether he would stop calling the Republican Medicare proposal a “voucher” plan. But Carney said that didn’t matter.
“What you call it doesn’t change what it does and what it is. It is a voucher plan,” he said. “They may not get a voucher in the mail, but that is what it is.”
Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said that the president "admitted" the economy wasn't growing fast enough—something, in fact, the president has often said of his own volition.
In short, not much happened, although the mere fact that the parties are talking is probably a good sign.
Tuesday night's House defeat of a "clean" debt-ceiling increase—that is, one with no spending cuts—sets the stage for what Republicans have long craved: a vote on a debt-limit extension paired with spending cuts. The White House has continued to sound the alarms about the damage a default would cause, but it now seems certain that the White House will have to play on the Republican field.
Of course, if the bond markets get spooked by the prospect of U.S. default, then the pressure will be on the Republicans to drop their ambitious spending cuts and move toward a debt-limit increase that can pass. So far, that hasn't happened. U.S. borrowing costs remain extraordinarily low, and the markets seem to see the current negotiations as no more than a Kabuki ritual before an inevitable rise in the ceiling.
Freshman Rep. Jeff Landry, R-La., said he declined the White House's invitation because he didn’t want to spend his morning “being lectured to” by the president.
“I refuse to partake in his political grandstanding that will ultimately do nothing for debt reduction and job creation,” Landry said in a statement.
Landry went on to blame Obama and congressional Democrats for, according to him, oversight of the largest budget deficits in the country’s history. On a more parochial issue, he complains the president hasn’t had the “courtesy” to write back to the Louisiana delegation on their requests for a meeting regarding what he calls “the de-facto moratorium” on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Maybe the quote of the morning belongs to Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz. He told National Journal, “I’m not sure we learned a lot new.”
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Katy O'Donnell contributed. contributed to this article.