WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans emerged from their Thursday afternoon lunch with words that might be terrifying to some Democrats: The president may be ready to deal on cutting the country's safety net programs.
President Barack Obama has already floated cutting Social Security by switching to a less-generous inflation rate and extracting several hundred billion more in savings from Medicare and other health programs.
He has insisted he needs some new tax revenue in return, and repeated that stance to the Senate Republicans Thursday. But many of them said after the meeting they felt like Obama was ready to come more their way, and that they could strike a "grand bargain" if they get it done before summer is over.
"This was his version of Lyndon Johnson on civil rights, and Richard Nixon to China, and Jimmy Carter on the Panama Canal," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said. "This will be hard, and he will have to go against his own party to some extent, as will some of us on the other side. But we need to fix the debt for the country."
Many Republicans said the key would be leadership by the president, which they seemed to define as him leaning on members of his party who are already on record against some of his entitlement reforms.
"I think both sides understand we do not want to kick the can down the road," said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). "That doesn't mean that we're going to change our minds on real significant issues, but there are those that we can work on.
"The whole subject of entitlements came up, and I think his message was very positive," Roberts added.
"I think it's going to be largely contingent on how far Democrats up here will go," said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). "I think a lot of it's going to have to do with whether or not [Obama] wants to lean into this and really do something and get Democrats up here on board."
"He needs to provide support and political cover to Democrats who know we have to address these issues and yet are concerned about doing it while their leader of their party is not giving them the backup that they need," said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). "So it was helpful that he talked to us today, even more helpful that he'll be talking to the American people directly with a unique megaphone -- the bully pulpit -- and then talking to the Democrats."
Republicans said they were encouraged that Obama offered up regulatory reforms as a place they could work together, and that he pledged to issue a final decision on the controversial Keystone tar sands oil pipeline.
But the big issues were debt, deficit and taxes, and most of the GOP senators seemed optimistic that a big deficit-cutting deal that includes tax reform could be done -- as long as it's wrapped up before the 2014 political season gets going.
"I think in a general sense, on the part of Senate Republicans and the president both, that between now and the summer is a critical moment and if we miss it, we miss the big opportunity maybe in the foreseeable future," said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
"We really have like a three- to five-month period to work through this and get this done before you get into the midterm elections when it will get much harder," Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) said. "I asked him specifically, 'Will you stay involved and grind it out with us?' and he said he would."
Some acknowledged a more equal need for each side to move.
"Anything we do we know is going to test everybody's sensibilities," said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). "That's the only way you come to an arrangement that really solves this for our country ... We understand there are differences, pretty strong differences, but there's enough commonality to really begin that work of expanding that outward."