President Obama huddled with congressional Democrats today at the Capitol, strategizing a coordinated agenda as lawmakers prepare to head home to face their constituents during the five-week summer recess, which begins this weekend.
In separate sessions with the Senate and House caucuses, the president was expected to discuss his legislative priorities, including his public push to highlight his plan to boost the middle class, health care implementation and immigration overhaul, among other topics.
“The president didn’t beat around the bush on anything,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters after the meeting. “But one thing is very clear as we head into the debates this fall: We’re united. Democrats are united on the simple principle that all our energy should be focused on creating jobs and supporting the middle class.”
Obama met earlier with House Democrats for about an hour before crossing the Capitol to meet with Senate Democrats. Leaving his first meeting, the president summarized his message to the caucus for reporters in three points: “jobs, middle class, growth.”
According to a senior Democratic leadership aide inside the meeting, Obama spelled out his legislative priorities, including discussions about the budget, jobs, economy, immigration, Affordable Care Act and gun safety.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., said Democrats told the president “we want to do more with him.”
“We’re ready to get to work with the president of the United States, and we’re ready to work with him to keep America working,” Becerra told reporters after the meeting. “The best way to reduce our deficits is to put Americans to work.”
Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla, said the president delivered “a good message” and piled on criticism of Republicans for leading an “unproductive Congress.”
“We’re just here making political statements and not doing people’s work,” Brown said. “It just really doesn’t make any sense.”
“His concern is one that I think we share and that is that the middle class is under assault, and we have to get back to building a strong economy, building middle class jobs, getting folks jobs where wages are going to support their families,” Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., added. “There are strong dynamics that have made it tough on middle class families and the president wants us to address those, and it’s the right message for the Democrats.”
In the meeting with Democratic senators, Obama discussed the National Security Agency and said he was willing to sit down to speak with senators about re-examining the agency’s programs, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said.
“He made it clear, he wanted the public to know that no abuse has occurred thus far,” Schumer said. “He certainly was open to re-examining it and looking at the balance between security and liberty.”
The meetings come one day after the president offered Republicans a new “grand bargain” in an attempt to break the political logjam on Capitol Hill before the fall’s looming debt and deficit negotiations.
Republicans aren’t buying it, however. The offer, which would couple corporate tax overhaul with funding for programs to create middle-class jobs, has been panned by Republicans who say the president is simply restating a proposal he has long supported and that Republicans have long opposed.
Rep. Janice Hahn, who is serving in her second term in Congress, said the president “encouraged” Democrats to stay on the winning message: job creation.
“The President is alive and well, and just because he’s going into a second term does not mean that in any way he’s given up on the issues that I believe he brought to the American people,” Hahn, D-Calif., said. “He wants to be out there on the campaign trail, and he wants to be taking the case to the American people, and he wants to continue to fight the good fight.”
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said the president insisted he is not open to negotiations on the debt ceiling.
“Our caucus is a hundred percent with him,” she said “He made it very clear that he was not going to negotiate over the debt ceiling. We have got to stop lurching from crisis to crisis, in his words and in our words, and that we are going to fight hard to make sure that we continue to manage our country in a way that makes middle-class families feel secure.”
One top aide inside the meeting said the president was adamant that he is “not negotiating around the debt ceiling,” drawing applause from the caucus. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has repeatedly called for any potential agreement to put the country on a path to balance the budget within 10 years, while matching any increase to the debt limit with an equivalent value in spending cuts.
At the end of the meeting, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi presented the president with a dark chocolate birthday cake covered by a presidential seal made of frosting, joking that the “Secret Service said no candles,” according to an aide in the room.
“I saluted the president…as the persistent president,” Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters in a news conference following the meeting. “It is his persistence on behalf of America’s working families that is something that serves our country so very, very well, and it’s that persistence that will improve their lives.”
Other Democrats leaving the meeting said the president resisted eating any of his cake, although Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, the Democratic caucus vice chairman, led his colleagues, singing, “Happy Birthday” to the president, who’ll turn 52 Sunday.
“He said he thinks he’s going to get a lot more cake so he left it for us,” Brown joked as she followed the unblemished cake out of the meeting through the Capitol. “I’m going to try it, too.”
On the Senate side, the president and Democrats had an unexpected visitor when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accidentally walked into the meeting.
“To be clear: I opened the wrong door, looked in and saw the president, said ‘my mistake’ and everybody laughed,” McCain tweeted. “Lighten up everybody…”