As Democrats Unveil Budget, Obama Continues Charm Offensive With GOP

The Senate on Wednesday began working through the trillion dollar spending bill to keep government running through the end of September. Amid all the talk about budgets, the legislation is actually the only one that's necessary to avoid a March 27 government shutdown. Meanwhile, President Obama continued his charm offensive with a visit with House Republicans. Melissa Block talks to Tamara Keith.

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The lines are now starkly drawn between Republican and Democratic approaches to the nation's finances. President Obama met with House Republicans today about the budget - they released their budget plan yesterday - and in the other chamber today, Senate Democrats unveiled their proposals.

NPR's Tamara Keith joins me now from the Capitol. And, Tamara, tell us about this sharp contrast between what Senate Democrats are proposing and what's in the House plan.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, if I had to sum up the difference, I'd say that the House budget balances in 10 years, and the Senate budget aims for a balanced approach - two budgets, two very different definitions of balance. The House budget eliminates the deficit in a decade. It's very much about cutting back, reducing spending, limiting the role of government.

And the Senate budget states its top goal as creating the conditions for job creation. It replaces the sequester, those automatic cuts, and even has about $100 billion in new spending on roads and schools. Here's how Sen. Patty Murray, head of the Budget Committee, describes it.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY: Our budget tackles this issue the way the American people have consistently said they want it done, with an equal mix of responsible spending cuts across the federal budget and new revenue raised by closing loopholes and cutting wasteful breaks that primarily benefit the rich.

KEITH: The headline number is that it includes about a trillion dollars in new revenue through closing those loopholes and about a trillion dollars in spending cuts, though some of those cuts include savings from lower interest payments on the debt.

BLOCK: And I can imagine that that did not go over too well among the Senate Republicans.

KEITH: Absolutely not. They say it's full of gimmicks, that it adds spending and doesn't take the deficit seriously enough. This is a little piece of tape from Jeff Sessions. He's the ranking Republican on the committee.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: Chairman said our budget is balanced. It is anything but balanced. They're using that phrase tax and spend and say that's balanced. But it absolutely isn't balanced. It never balances.

BLOCK: We've seen, Tamara, this divergence on questions of taxes and spending and the role of government in all kinds of debates there on Capitol Hill - on the sequester and the debt ceiling. I assume this issue also dominated the discussions in that meeting between the president and House members today.

KEITH: It was absolutely a big theme. The president went there, a White House aide tells me, to deliver the message that, yes, there are big differences but that they should try to work through them and work on things where they do agree, possibly on immigration reform, some other things. And House Speaker John Boehner, he came out of the meeting and said that it was a good discussion.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER: I've heard it before. I thought it was good for all of our members to hear it so they have an understanding of where he's coming from. We got big problems in our country. They need to be addressed. We're willing to get them addressed. I hope the president continues his outreach.

KEITH: And even the author of the House budget, Paul Ryan, said he thought that the president did himself some good. You know, there are a lot of House Republicans who believe that the president's only goal is to destroy them. And part of what the president was trying to do is say: Hey, let's look each other in the eye and not talk about destroying each other for a little while.

BLOCK: Well, if that was the message from Speaker Boehner, what about rank-and-file Republicans? What did you hear from them?

KEITH: You know, it was a real mix. There were a lot of questions about the Keystone XL pipeline. Somebody even asked about the White House tours that the president has canceled. The tone was very respectful. But when several of the members came out, they said: My gosh. I could've watched this on TV. Like, the president didn't say anything new. There was this feeling that he possibly had been wasting their time.

But then others, like Chairman Ryan, said the president did to himself some good by coming and seeing them. And there is a feeling that, you know, he came to their house, and they were grateful for that.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Tamara Keith at the Capitol. Tamara, thank you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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