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White House Sandwiches Followed By Snark, Disappointment, Warnings

President Obama's limo in what was, in part, the world's most impressive lunch run, Washington, May 16, 2012.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Obama's limo in what was, in part, the world's most impressive lunch run, Washington, May 16, 2012.

President Obama and congressional leaders lunched at the White House Wednesday on sandwiches the leader of the free world purchased during a visit to a Washington, D.C., eatery where he met earlier in the morning with a group of small-business people.

Descriptions of the White House lunch meeting from those on the opposing red and blue teams aware of the details of the discussion made it sound like yet another meeting featuring the nation's top policymakers that you could have accurately described beforehand.

The nation's top Democrats and Republicans essentially told the other side what they wouldn't compromise on as they ostensibly work to defuse the fiscal time bombs poised to explode at the end of the year — the debt ceiling, the Bush tax cuts and automatic and deep budget cuts due to take effect next year because of past failures to compromise.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president told those assembled that he wanted a "balanced approach" to debt reduction, meaning not just spending cuts but tax increases, in any deal the sides reach.

"The president made clear ... that we are not going to recreate the debt ceiling debacle of last August," Carney said, according to a Reuters report.

For his part, House Speaker John Boehner sought clarification from the president: Did Obama intend to propose a debt-ceiling increase without recommending spending cuts? the Ohio Republican asked according to a statement from his office.

When the president answered "yes," the speaker repeated a line from a speech he gave in Washington the day before.

"The speaker told the president, 'As long as I'm around here, I'm not going to allow a debt ceiling increase without doing something serious about the debt.' "

Boehner's version of the lunch continued:

"The speaker also asked the president for his plans to deal with the largest tax increase in American history, which will mean tax hikes on small businesses, and the devastating cuts poised to hit our military, both scheduled to take effect at the end of the year. The speaker pressed the president to approve the job-creating Keystone pipeline energy project. The speaker also asked the president to encourage the attorney general to provide the information congressional investigators have sought about the 'Fast and Furious' operation."

Lest you conclude it was all issues of contention, the readout of the lunch from Boehner's perspective ended with something that sounded like a bit of postprandial snark:

"The Speaker was very pleased with the sandwiches served. "

There was nothing from the man who runs Congress' other chamber, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), on whether he enjoyed the lunch fare. But it was fairly clear via a statement from a Senate Democratic aide that the majority leader didn't much enjoy the discussion:

"Senator Reid made clear his view that absent a balanced agreement that pairs smart spending cuts with revenue measures asking millionaires to pay their fair share, the debt will be dealt with through the sequester, which will cut another $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending in a fair manner – half from military spending and half from domestic spending.

"Since no debt ceiling increase will likely be necessary until after the end of the year, Senator Reid conveyed his view that any discussion of the debt ceiling is premature until after the sequester takes effect or is replaced with a balanced agreement, and after Congress deals with the expiring Bush tax cuts.

"Senator Reid thought it was unfortunate to see Republican leaders engaging in the same kind of brinksmanship that led to a slump in economic confidence and a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating last year. Republican leaders' pronouncements left him with the distinct impression that they remained more interested in drawing lines in the sand and appeasing the Tea Party than working with Democrats in a calm and rational manner."

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Kent.), also had nothing to say about quality of the sandwiches. And McConnell, who once famously said that his number one goal was to make sure Obama was a one-term president, actually mentioned possibilities for agreement though he seemed to place the onus on Democrats. Don Stewart, McConnell's deputy communications director, provided a read out:

"In a cordial lunch meeting, Sen. McConnell pressed the President and the Democrat leadership on the need to produce a bill to prevent the student loan interest rate increase that can actually pass the Senate.

" McConnell: 'We all agreed that rates shouldn't go up this year and that we need to resolve the differences and pass legislation together.'

"Sen. McConnell noted in the meeting that the Senate passed bipartisan legislation over the past year when poison pills were removed and Republicans were included in the debate (some examples: JOBS Act, Veterans jobs, trade agreements, FAA reauthorization, highway bill, payroll tax holiday, patent reform). And he believes that there is time before the election for even more bipartisan accomplishments."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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