Republicans send mixed signals on Obama outreach over budget

WASHINGTON (AP) - House Republicans are sending mixed signals in agreeing to meet on Wednesday with President Barack Obama for talks over the budget impasse.

On the one hand, many Republicans who long have chided Mr Obama for failing to engage their party on the nation's biggest problems are applauding his newfound outreach - part of a concerted effort by the president to mend ties with Congress in hopes of reaching a grand compromise on fiscal issues.

On the other hand, neither side is backing down from entrenched positions that have prevented deals in the past.

On Tuesday, House Republicans offered their new budget proposal, crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, who ran against Mr Obama as the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee but had lunch with him last week as the president initiated his congressional "charm offensive."

Mr Ryan and House Republicans, who were to meet Mr Obama at the Capitol on Wednesday, put forward their 2014 budget fully mindful that it would be dead on arrival at the White House and in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The plan, which the White House immediately criticised for harming the middle class, doubles down on longstanding Republican proposals to slash funding for programmes that Mr Obama and Democrats sorely want to protect. It includes a repeal of Mr Obama's health care reform law - a major component of his legacy - and changes to the Medicare health care program for the elderly that would shift more of the cost to future patients.

At the same time, Mr Obama hasn't budged from his insistence that any budget include new tax revenues - the key sticking point in February's failed attempt to avert US$85 billion (S$106 billion) in automatic spending cuts that both parties agreed made for bad policy.

And Senate Democrats were to unveil a counterproposal on Wednesday that aides said would raise taxes by almost US$1 trillion and would use savings to repeal the automatic spending cuts that began taking effect March 1 and are set to continue through the decade - a nonstarter for House Republicans.

The resolve from both sides to dig in their heels on the most contentious issues raises an important question about Mr Obama's efforts to make nice with Republicans: What's the point?

"We're not naive. There are disagreements and obstacles," White House press secretary Jay Carney said.

"But the president is at the head of this effort because he believes deeply in it."

In reaching out to lawmakers, Mr Obama hopes to attract more moderate elements from both parties in Congress to deal comprehensively with the nation's long-term fiscal imbalance.

The fence-mending campaign started with a dinner Mr Obama hosted last week at a hotel near the White House for a dozen Senate Republicans and continues this week with the meeting with House Republicans on Wednesday and a pair of closed-door sessions with House Democrats and Senate Republicans on Thursday. Mr Obama met with Senate Democrats on Tuesday.

In interviews and on Sunday talk shows, many Republicans on the receiving end of Mr Obama's overtures have praised the president for making an effort - even if they feel it's too little, too late.

"We welcome it," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday.

"I told the president on Friday I hope he'll invite all of our members down for these dinners." But other Republicans are refusing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt.

Fueling their reluctance is the not-so-distant memory of being hammered by the president on a near-daily basis amid last month's fight over the automatic spending cuts; Mr Obama claimed Republicans alone were responsible for blocking a deal.

"All of a sudden there's a pivot literally overnight, where he wants to come to the caucus and everyone should get out the drums and pound them and sing songs," Rep. Greg Walden, who chairs the House Republican campaign committee, said in an interview.

"It doesn't work like that in any relationship I've been in."

White House aides say Mr Obama is also sensitive to the fact that for Republicans looking ahead to the 2014 elections, appearing too chummy with a Democratic president could inflict more harm than good - especially for Republicans from conservative states who fear a primary challenge from their right.

The White House argues that Mr Obama's overture is genuine. Freed from the need to run for re-election, aides said, he feels more flexibility to strike deals with Republicans that include provisions that liberals in his own party might not want, such as an adjustment for cost-of-living increases for retirees receiving Social Security benefits. Mr Obama proposed the idea Tuesday in his meeting with Senate Democrats.