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Obama, House Republicans Meet But Gaps Remain On Taxes, Entitlements

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President Barack Obama turns to reporters as he leaves Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 13, 2013, after his closed-door meeting with House Speaker John Boehner and Republican lawmakers to discuss the budget. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) | AP

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama continued his newfound charm offensive Wednesday, returning to Capitol Hill to meet with the House Republican conference. But while even some sharp critics of the president called it a welcome visit, the chances of breaking the gridlock over new tax revenues and entitlement reform remained bleak, they conceded.

"There's a trust factor," offered Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), adding that much of the GOP conference is convinced Obama's biggest priority is making sure Republicans are booted from the House majority in 2014.

Most Republicans pouring out of the 90-minute meeting offered a similar characterization. It's always constructive to have a dialogue with the president, they said. But they'd heard it all before.

"He told us basically what he told us campaigning for the last six years," said Rep. John Carter (R-Texas).

"Not a single new idea from the president of the United States," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), one of the House's more outspoken conservatives. "It's nothing new ... we're still waiting for leadership."

Members said a variety of issues were raised, including the budget and deficit reduction, immigration, gun control and the Keystone XL pipeline. Unsurprisingly, taxes and entitlements remained the biggest source of disagreement. Despite venturing down Pennsylvania Avenue, the president didn't seem able to produce much Republican give on the issue.

"He simply says we need to have higher taxes, and we don't agree with him. So I don't see any agreements there at all," Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) told The Huffington Post. "He's very substantive on tax increases, very lip service when it comes to reform of entitlements."

"I think it was cosmetic," Fleming continued. "I don't see that he's moved in our direction one bit. I don't see any compromise coming from him at all."

As the White House and Congress seek agreement on a long-term deficit-reduction scheme, Obama has continued to insist that he won't touch entitlement reform without Republicans also bending, in their case on new tax revenues. On Tuesday, the president told Senate Democrats he supports the budget proposal put forward by Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), which calls for $975 billion in additional revenues by closing loopholes and ending tax expenditures. Also included in the budget are $240 billion in defense spending cuts, $242 billion in reduced interest payments and $493 billion in domestic cuts, with $275 billion derived from health care savings.

For Republicans, those policies are non-starters. The party has backed the new budget put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which calls for a deficit balance in 10 years. Wednesday's meeting included some discussion about achieving that objective but little flexibility on how to get there.

"[Obama] wants to single out individual provisions as loopholes to raise more revenue," said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas). "Our position remains the same, which is, let's close these loopholes, but let's lower rates to do it."

Some lawmakers did leave the meeting optimistic about a deal. While the president stuck to vague statements about what he'd give up in negotiations, they said Obama did reaffirm his willingness to make changes to entitlement programs -- namely Medicare and Social Security.

"Entitlement reform is an area where we can definitely work together, because there's a consensus," Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) told reporters. "We all know we have to do it."

"The president always comes across extremely sincere. We liked everything we heard," he added. "It's certainly a step in the right direction that he's coming to meet with us. It's been long overdue."

House GOP leadership also struck a more conciliatory note, while maintaining that gaps remain over the path to long-term deficit reduction.

"I thought that we had a very frank and candid exchange of ideas and, frankly, I think it was productive," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters after the meeting.

"I hope that these kinds of discussions can continue," Boehner said. "Even though we have very real differences, our job is to find common ground to do the work the American people sent us here to do."

Ryan -- as House Budget Committee Chairman perhaps the most important Republican lawmaker in this drama -- described the meeting as a "very frank exchange." The Wisconsin Republican had his own audience with the president at the White House last week. Both get-togethers, Ryan said, were constructive.

"I think members were glad to have the opportunity. I think [the president] did himself some good by coming here," Ryan said Wednesday.

Still, the former GOP vice-presidential candidate hedged when pressed on whether a fiscal compromise was foreseeable, now that Obama was directly engaging with Republicans.

"I think it just remains to be seen," Ryan said. "I think the question is, is it temporary or is it a sincere conversion? And only time will tell."

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