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March 17, 2013

No budging on budget

WASHINGTON — Over dinner at a swank hotel a few blocks from the White House, Republican senators wanted to know if President Barack Obama would support a gradual increase in the age of eligibility for Medicare, set at 65 since the program’s inception more than four decades ago.

The president hedged, according to several at the event, recalling the discussion on a cost-saving change to Medicare that most if not all leading Democrats in Congress adamantly oppose. One later recalled that Obama “drew no bright line” in opposition, but the lawmaker came away believing that the president “would be very resistant” even if it might unlock a long-sought deal to reduce deficits and an ever-growing federal debt.

That lawmaker and some of the others describing what occurred in the meetings spoke on condition of anonymity, noting that the sessions were supposed to be private discussions.

The politically fraught moment came at the outset of Obama’s widely publicized recent string of meetings with rank-and-file lawmakers.

The unusual commitment of presidential time netted public praise from his most implacable critics and was supplemented by numerous conversations among lawmakers and senior White House aides.

No breakthroughs were anticipated and none emerged, and for all the warm talk, House Speaker John Boehner delivered a tart summation.

“Republicans want to balance the budget. The president doesn’t. Republicans want to solve our long-term debt problem. The president doesn’t,” he said, while adding it was incumbent on all sides to seek common ground.

Across the hours, there were moments of levity — and an expression of gratitude to Arizona Sen. John McCain for his service to the nation on the 40th anniversary of his release from a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam.

Evidently the food was pretty good, too.

One presidential aide left a meeting with the Senate Republican rank and file toting a carry-out bag from lunch that featured lobster salad and blueberry pie with ice cream.

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