published Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Obama overtures fall short with Tennessee GOP


by Chris Carroll
President Barack Obama speaks at the White House in Washington in this March 1, 2013, file photo.
President Barack Obama speaks at the White House in Washington in this March 1, 2013, file photo.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. talks with reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON — Deep into President Barack Obama's hourlong visit with House Republicans on Wednesday, someone stated the obvious: "Nobody in this room voted for you."

The freshly re-elected chief executive paused and pondered the Capitol Hill hostility for a moment.

"Well," he said, "I voted for myself."

"Some other guys and I got a good chuckle out of that," said U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, a Republican from Johnson City, Tenn. "At least he had one supporter there."

A light moment to be sure, but the exchange illustrates the serious gap between all parties even after Obama's separate goodwill sessions with Senate Democrats, House Republicans, Senate Republicans and House Democrats.

The result of Obama's closed-door charm offensive? Plenty of dish, but no developments. And certainly no "grand bargain" over taxes and entitlement reform.

"Hopefully, we can come up with something," said U.S Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. "It doesn't mean we're going to. You never know."

Dining on lobster Thursday at the Capitol, Senate Republicans applauded the president at least three times. But afterward, senators said the audible praise came only because Obama showed up. They denied any sign of a real breakthrough.

"We welcomed him and said this is the way presidents historically have dealt with members of the Senate," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.. "They've gotten to know them in an informal way."

The former Tennessee governor compared the course ahead to Lyndon Johnson's on civil rights, Richard Nixon's on China and Jimmy Carter's on the Panama Canal. Alexander suggested Obama step up his "leadership" to match his predecessors, but declined to elaborate on what he meant.

"This will be hard," Alexander said. "It will have to go against his own party to some extent, as will some of us on the other side."

Other lawmakers said the same thing, but nobody appears willing to sacrifice just yet. Republicans oppose Obama's call to raise taxes on the nation's wealthiest, and Democrats aren't wild about cutting Medicare and Social Security.

In other words, interviews showed, the president's visits really didn't change a thing, at least in the immediate term. But both sides at least are addressing each other directly as opposed to firing shots in the media, lawmakers said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said the president can't stop at the occasional lunch or trip down Pennsylvania Avenue. He said his fellow legislators can't solve the nation's financial problems alone.

"People run for the hills on entitlement reform and that kind of thing," he said. "It's not going to happen just in Congress by itself. The president or his designee -- someone he trusts -- needs to be there."

U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann won't consider any revenue, including tax increases on corporations or the nation's wealthiest. He called spending cuts the only way for Obama to cement a meaningful legacy.

Otherwise, "he's blowing it," the Ooltewah Republican said in an interview.

White House press secretary Jay Carney placed the blame elsewhere.

"What is important to remember is that is not the only game in town," he said at a Thursday briefing. "And the president hopes that Republicans are willing to join him in the center. ... We will see if that happens."

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