Thursday, March 7, 2013

Toomey: Obama Dinner was ‘a Beginning’

March 7, 2013, 8:26 AM

Getty ImagesSens. Tom Coburn, Richard Burr and Saxby Chambliss leave the dinner.

By Peter Nicholas and Kristina Peterson

We’ll be learning more today about how President Barack Obama‘s dinner with 12 Republican senators went on Wednesday night, but signs so far are that it served the president’s purpose of breaking the ice with lawmakers who may be willing to join new talks on deficit-cutting, taxes, entitlements and other budgetary matters.

The latest read on the dinner comes from Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.), who said the evening offered “a candid and constructive conversation . . . Most of the discussion was about fiscal issues, although it did extend beyond fiscal and budgetary issues.”

“We weren’t there to negotiate a deal, but to have a discussion to find common ground and discuss a process on the big fiscal challenges,” Mr. Toomey said. “There will be a chance for further exchange, and we’ll see where it goes.”

His conclusion: “I think there are areas where we could reach common ground — I think that is possible — but it’s not going to happen over one dinner.”

Mr. Toomey’s assessment matches an even more upbeat recounting of the dinner from Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.), who told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday night that he saw the opportunity to reach a “grand-bargain”-style deal as the House and Senate work on their budgets for the next fiscal year and lawmakers face a May deadline for raising the federal borrowing limit.

Mr. Obama led off the dinner with remarks and then opened the floor to a free-flowing conversation, Mr. Hoeven said. Discussion topics included energy, an overhaul of immigration law, the budget cuts for the current year known as the sequester, and the resolution passed Wednesday by the House to extend the government’s funding past March 27. The Senate is expected to vote on that measure next week.

“The real focus was the debt and the deficit and how we come up with the kind of bipartisan reforms, tax reform and entitlement reform, that preserves and protects Social Security and Medicare, but that also enables us to deal with the debt and the deficit on a long-term basis,” Mr. Hoeven said.

“The heart of the discussion tonight was, ‘How do we get there? How do we get people to come together and really effect the reforms?’ ” he said.

Mr. Hoeven said there was “a recognition we really need to do this in the next four- to five-month window. The key is to stay in this intense dialogue.’’

Mr. Toomey said he was committed to tax reform that lowers tax rates and to putting the nation on a “sustainable fiscal path with long-term structural reforms of the mandatory health care programs.”

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