President Obama rounded out his good-will tour with a third and final visit to Capitol Hill, telling Senate Republicans he would challenge Democrats on changes to entitlement programs if Republican members relent on raising taxes.
One day earlier, Mr. Obama huddled with House Republicans and engaged in a similarly spirited exchange. Republicans on both sides of the Capitol afterward said the only way to reach a deficit-reduction deal is to continue to work with them, not campaign against them in the press.
“He needs to continue to stay directly involved with us to grind out a grand bargain,” said Sen. John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican. “If he continues to do this, I think we have a shot to get there.”
Emerging from Thursday’s meeting with Senate Republicans, Mr. Obama said he enjoyed the discussions and called the talks “constructive.”
“The President reinforced that he wants to continue to work together with willing members of the Conference on the number of pressing issues facing our nation and looks forward to continuing this dialogue in the weeks ahead,” the White House later said in a statement.
After years of tense relations with Republicans on Capitol Hill and very few direct meetings during his first term, however, Mr. Obama also got an earful about how previous presidents worked with the opposite party in Congress.
“We welcome his visit, we welcome the dinner,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican. “I told him … ‘Look, this is historically the way presidents have gotten results.’ “
Mr. Alexander said he used the example of Sen. Everett Dirksen, an Illinois Republican who regularly worked with President Lyndon B. Johnson, and popular Democratic Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.’s close relationship with President Reagan.
“I wanted to show respect for him but I wanted to show him that this is the way things have historically gotten done,” Mr. Alexander said. “You don’t just heckle us and taunt us on the campaign trail.”
The president, who has a reputation for eschewing the type of direct contact with lawmakers from the other party, took questions from Republicans on his commitment to reducing the deficit, his willingness to find significant savings from Medicare and Social Security, and his tendency to continue touring the country to promote his policies instead of hashing out his differences with members of Congress.
Mr. Obama “needs to be directly involved, not as we used to say, leading from behind,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told reporters afterward. “So he’s go an indispensable role to pay and we hope he will decide to step up.”
The presidential outreach effort began last week when Mr. Obama made a series of calls to Senate Republicans and held a dinner with about a dozen of them at Washington’s posh Jefferson Hotel.
During Thursday’s meeting with Senate Republicans, he took about a dozen questions and also discussed immigration and energy, Republicans said.
In both meetings with Republicans, Mr. Obama promised he would make a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline plans in a matter of months and congratulated the Senate on making progress on immigration reform.
The president even acknowledged that environmentalists have exaggerated the risks involved in extending the pipeline, although he also argued that business groups have equally oversold the jobs that the massive energy project would create, according to several GOP senators in the room.