Obama huddles with Republicans on budget

President Barack Obama courted his Republican critics Wednesday in a bid to break a stalemate over sharp budget differences, with his main political rival calling the meeting a good start.

Several Republican congressmen emerged from the meeting -- Obama's second on Capitol Hill in as many days -- describing it as respectful and worthwhile, but the rival sides remained far apart on key fiscal issues.

"Frankly I think it was productive," House Speaker John Boehner said after Obama's 90-minute meeting, his first with the 232-strong House Republican caucus since 2010.

"We know however that there are some very real differences between our two parties. Republicans want to balance the budget, the president doesn't. Republicans want to solve our long-term debt problem, the president doesn't."

But Boehner conceded that "today was a good start, and I hope that these kinds of discussions can continue."

The optics -- a Democratic president wooing his congressional arch rivals -- gave the meeting the appearance of a win for both sides as they negotiate an extension of government funding for the remainder of the fiscal year, and lay out their budget blueprints for the next decade.

But earlier in the day Obama, who on Tuesday sat down with Senate Democrats, seemed to pour cold water on prospects for a grand bargain to cut the deficit.

"Ultimately, it may be that the differences are just too wide," Obama said in an interview with ABC News that aired early Wednesday.

Democrats are pushing for what they describe as a balanced approach to deficit reduction, including targeted spending cuts and new tax revenue to help slash the $16 trillion national debt, while Republicans demand dramatic cuts to federal spending, reform of entitlements and no new taxes.

"It may be that ideologically, if their position is, 'we can't do any revenue,' or, 'we can only do revenue if we gut Medicare or gut Social Security or gut Medicaid,' if that's the position, then we're probably not going to be able to get a deal."

Obama nevertheless has engaged in a charm offensive since Congress failed to prevent billions of dollars in across-the-board federal spending cuts from kicking in this month.

Last week he dined with several Republican senators, and on Tuesday had lunch with Senate Democrats in the US Capitol. Thursday will see him do the same with Senate Republicans.

But amid the congeniality, the two political parties have spelled out the gap between them this week in the form of starkly different budget proposals.

Republican House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan unveiled a plan that would slash spending by $4.6 trillion through major cuts to health care, reducing the top tax rate to 25 percent, and balancing the budget in 10 years.

His Democratic counterpart in the Senate Budget Committee, chairwoman Patty Murray, is unveiling her own plan Wednesday that includes nearly $2 trillion in deficit reduction -- evenly split between new revenue through the closure of tax loopholes, and targeted spending.

Despite the White House panning Ryan's budget, he was one of the first out the door to praise Obama for his outreach.

"I think he did himself some good," a smiling Ryan told reporters.

"The question is, is it temporary or is it a sincere conversion. And only time will tell."

The White House said Obama enjoyed "a good, substantive exchange" with Republicans and "reinforced his strong desire, especially now that the election is over, to find bipartisan common ground" on legislative priorities.

Representative Tim Huelskamp, a conservative and a consistent Obama critic, said there were "nice words" but "nothing specific" from the president on where he might be willing to compromise.

Representative Chris Smith was also suspect of Obama's sudden diplomacy.

"If this is nothing but a charm offensive to win over the news media, and my extension the American people, that's of no help."