President Obama told House Republicans on Wednesday that he's not looking to balance the federal budget over the next decade but he is willing to negotiate long-term reforms to entitlement spending in exchange for new taxes.
"That's not a priority," Obama told Republican lawmakers during his second trip to Capitol Hill in as many days.
Republicans emerged from the closed-door meeting offering mixed reviews of Obama's first visit with them in two years, though many said they're waiting to see if the president backs up his charm offensive by actually working with Republicans to settle differences over a series of funding issues.
"I think it just remains to be seen," said Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who ran on the Republican ticket against Obama last year. "The question is, is this temporary or is it a sincere conversion? Only time will tell."
It was the second of four appearances Obama will make at the Capitol this week, and likely his toughest audience. Obama has skirmished repeatedly with House lawmakers in recent years over taxes, spending and the budget deficit.
Republicans greeted Obama with a standing ovation in the Capitol's basement before peppering him with sharp questions about balancing the budget.
Obama told the group that the cuts needed to balance the budget over the next decade, as Republicans want, would undermine the economy.
"His explanation is that if you cut the budget too much then you would not have the investments that would bring the returns and the stability that you need," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.
Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee, introduced a spending plan this week that balances the budget within a decade by reducing spending by more than $5 trillion. His plan would reduce Medicare costs by gradually raising the age of eligibility and converting the program to one that helps beneficiaries buy private health insurance.
"The president wants to deal with entitlements, but not within the 10-year window," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said after the meeting. "I think we can't leave it to the next generation."
Obama's meeting with House Republicans comes after a bruising battle to offset $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that kicked in March 1. Republicans now say they're not sure whether the president's charm offensive is a political ploy or a genuine offer to work with them.
"I think there is a lot of skepticism" among Republicans, said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y. "The sequester really reinforced for us that there are a lot of politics being played. That's a hurdle he realizes he has to overcome."
Republicans exiting the meeting were both optimistic and skeptical, noting that despite his talk of bipartisanship the president was scheduled Wednesday to address Organizing for Action, his former campaign operation that is now refocused on pushing his agenda.
"I'm waiting to hear what he says to OFA," said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md. "I think that's when we'll get the real gauge as to whether of not he is really willing to bridge the gap, if he tells them we have to reach across the aisle and concede issues to the other side. If that is not the message he delivers, than this charm offensive really is just for the media."