Obama Makes Rare Trip To The Hill For Closed-Door Meetings
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President Obama rarely visits Capitol Hill, but today, he traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue to meet with House and Senate Democrats. He wanted to rally their support on a range of issues before Congress sets off on its long August recess. NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang joins us from the Capitol. And, Ailsa, meeting just with Democrats, no Republicans this time.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: That's right. That's what makes today's meetings different from Obama's charm offensive back in March when he met separately with Senate and House Republicans and Democrats. This time around, the purpose seemed to be let's fire up the Democrats about the president's agenda so they can go home during the August recess and promote his proposals.
But that still didn't stop Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona from barging in at one point today, kind of as a joke. We could hear loud cheers and laughter after he entered the room. And then McCain came out grinning, saying something like, oh, sorry, my mistake.
BLOCK: Wrong door?
CHANG: Yeah, exactly.
BLOCK: Well, if the idea was to fire up the Democrats, were they fired up? They came out and spoke to reporters afterward. What did you hear?
CHANG: Well, it was kind of a vast smorgasbord of issues, like in both meetings, the conversation sounded mainly focused on creating jobs for the middle class through education, training and government projects. Here's a summary from Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland.
SENATOR BENJAMIN CARDIN: We went through a variety of issues, but it's mainly protecting the middle class, protecting education, protecting infrastructure, protecting a balanced way to deal with our budget problems.
CHANG: But the president also touched briefly on immigration reform and the implementation of Obamacare. And at one point, he also defended former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers as a possible choice to succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve, though Obama has not announced a final decision on that yet.
BLOCK: Ailsa, what about government surveillance? That was the topic of a hearing today before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Did the president take that question up?
CHANG: He sure did. The president defended the government surveillance programs, but said he's open to making changes. Chuck Schumer from New York said Obama believed there was still a lot more alarm in the public than was warranted.
SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: He felt that the public didn't have an understanding that nothing has - that no one can point to a single abuse right now that has happened up to now.
BLOCK: OK. And what about the sequester, the across-the-board spending cuts that went into effect back in March? Congress is going to have to figure out a new spending plan when it comes back in the fall.
CHANG: That's right. There were apparently lots of questions posed to Obama about the sequester. Lawmakers are concerned that these cuts are having a real effect on the federal workforce, on research, on roads. But to restore the money that the sequester took away, Congress will have to figure out where to find cuts elsewhere in the government. And apparently Obama said he wants to do that in a comprehensive fashion. Again, here's Chuck Schumer.
SCHUMER: You know, he's not going to accept cuts, sequestration restoration for the military any greater than in domestic.
CHANG: Of course, that will mean a pretty intense battle between Republicans and Democrats over revenue increases and cuts to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. And that's going to be one of the big showdowns that we're going to see this fall when Congress comes back in session.
BLOCK: So you're talking about the grand bargain that's been elusive up 'til now.
BLOCK: Well, what sense do you get, Ailsa, about Democrats' strategy as they head into this long August recess?
CHANG: Well, the idea is to get back to their districts and start selling parts of the president's agenda. For example, Dick Durbin of Illinois is joining Iowa Senator Tom Harkin in Ames, Iowa, for an immigration forum to promote the reform plan the Senate passed. They're holding the event right in Congressman Steve King's home district. King's been a big opponent to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
And Durbin says he's hopeful there will be other town halls across the country, and he said senators should not be wasting their August recess just by sitting around and relaxing. They should be filling this void with conversation about their agenda and the president's agenda.
BLOCK: OK. Ailsa, thanks so much.
CHANG: You're welcome.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Ailsa Chang at the Capitol.