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House GOP, Obama meet face to face but still don't see eye to eye

By Deirdre Walsh and Rachel Streitfeld, CNN
March 13, 2013 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • House Republicans, President Obama still far apart on budget priorities, GOP leaders say
  • "He did himself some good," Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin says
  • Obama offered "just a bunch of platitudes," Georgia congressman says
  • Some in the Republican caucus think Obama should have reached out long ago

Washington (CNN) -- President Barack Obama entered the conference room in the Capitol basement to a standing ovation, but after nearly an hour and a half of discussion with House Republicans, there was little evidence that the meeting -- part of the White House's "charm offensive" on Capitol Hill -- did much to change the partisan gulf between the president and his chief adversaries.

At a news conference after the meeting, House Speaker John Boehner thanked the president for coming but also noted the challenges remaining on a host of issues, especially ones related to reducing the deficit.

"We know how there are some very real differences between our two parties (on issues like) jobs, balancing the budget and what do we do to get economy moving again," Boehner said. "Republicans want to balance the budget. The President doesn't. Republicans want to solve our long term debt problem. The President doesn't. We want to unlock our energy resources to put more Americans back to work. The President doesn't."

The speaker added, "But having said that, today was a good start and I hope that these kinds of discussions can continue."

Republicans' top priority -- tackling federal spending and reining in record deficits -- came up early in the Republican conference meeting. Oklahoma Rep. Jim Lankford asked the first question, pressing the president to explain why he wouldn't join House Republicans in their effort to balance the budget in a decade.

Obama, according to several Republicans, explained that he didn't share that priority, an answer that many emphasized as they left the meeting.

Georgia Rep. Paul Broun, a conservative who is running for the Senate, mentioned that exchange as he left, telling reporters, "basically his whole talk was just a bunch of platitudes and no substance to it."

"He thought what was more important was that deficits fall below growth as a percentage of GDP -- certainly a laudable goal, but I think the federal government, like any business or any family, needs to work towards a balanced budget," Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, said afterward.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor gave a blunt assessment about the divide on fiscal issues, suggesting it could carry over to other issues.

"If the president wants to let our unwillingness to raise taxes get in the way, then we're not gonna be able to set differences aside and focus on what we agree on," Cantor told reporters at the GOP leaders' news conference.

When Lankford raised fiscal issues during the meeting, he also pointed out that the president's other meeting on Wednesday was with his political arm, Organizing for Action. Word of that meeting rankled many GOP members who suggested Obama was more concerned with political goals than working across the aisle.

"We know the president is going to speak before Organizing for Action tonight," Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, who leads the House Republicans' campaign arm, told reporters as he left the meeting. "We know he's made it clear that taking out the House is his big priority, and we know he's been on the never-ending campaign tour up to this point, so there's a trust factor."

Mindful of the House GOP undercurrent that Obama is chiefly focused on scoring political points, one source inside the meeting said the president addressed those concerns directly at the end of the meeting.

This source told CNN that the president told GOP members that if he were only focused on the midterms, he would not be pushing immigration reform because that's not necessarily helpful for some members of his party. He said he would not push for entitlement reform because a lot of Democrats don't agree and are nervous about tackling such a politically explosive issue.

He told them that he runs the country, that he wants it to succeed and that he looks around the room and sees other people who love their country. Obama said they have a moment and should seize it, according to this source.

But Walden did say the session helped build some trust, and it was a good opportunity to raise a wide spectrum of issues. He mentioned Israel as one area where both parties found some common ground.

Exiting the conference, House Budget Committee Chairman and former Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) said of the president: "He did himself some good."

Several members in the meeting said it helped open a dialogue but lamented that the session was only the second time the president had traveled up Pennsylvania Avenue to talk to House Republicans since he was elected.

"The president doesn't spend a lot of time working with members of Congress. He doesn't have to -- he's president of the United States -- but I think it's made his job a lot more difficult, and it's made our task a lot more difficult because there's very little communication," Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said after the meeting.

Cotton described the president's demeanor in the meeting as "affable" and said the various members who asked questions were "very cordial and respectful."

According to multiple GOP sources, conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington screened questions in advance and called on members after the president made opening remarks.

Rep. Michael Grimm of New York said the event had been peppered with occasional lighter moments such as speculation after word got around the room that the new pope was about to be announced.

"Anyone who thinks this president is anything but affable and pleasant when he's speaking with group is just simply wrong. They haven't met him," said Grimm. But he added he was waiting to see if the president would follow up his outreach with some bipartisan action.

Obama fielded some tense questions during the meeting. Michigan Rep. Candice Miller told reporters she was not satisfied with the president's response to her complaint that the White House had suspended public tours after forced spending cuts went into effect. Republicans have charged that the closures were politically motivated, but Obama said Wednesday the decision had been made by the Secret Service.

CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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