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Obama to meet with Republican senators over budget

U.S. President Barack Obama walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington before departing to visit wounded military personnel at
U.S. President Barack Obama walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington before departing to visit wounded military personnel at

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama plans to meet with several Republican senators for dinner on Wednesday as part of his effort to revive talks to tackle the nation's long-term deficit, the White House said.

The Democratic president is trying to cobble together what he calls a "common sense caucus" among lawmakers to help resolve U.S. budget woes and push his legislative agenda.

He also is scheduled to travel to Capitol Hill next week, when he will address Senate Republicans at a lunch on March 14.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the lunch will be an opportunity to discuss budget and economic issues.

A source, who asked not to be identified, said Obama also plans to meet with House of Representatives Democrats next week, although the date has not yet been set.

Wednesday's dinner meeting, to be held at a hotel near the White House, could be postponed, the White House said, as Washington faced heavy snow forecasts that already had closed most federal agencies.

In recent days, Obama has searched for common ground with senators who in the past have indicated a willingness to compromise on budget issues. The White House on Sunday suggested talks could center around a broad budget deal that includes new tax revenues as well as reforms to entitlement programs. These include the Medicare health care program for the elderly and disabled and Social Security retirement benefits - programs that are rapidly growing in cost as the population ages.

The Republican U.S. senators Obama has contacted recently include Bob Corker of Tennessee, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Rob Portman of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine, according to the senators or congressional aides. The White House declined to confirm the names.

Coburn will attend Wednesday's dinner, as will Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, their aides said. Senator John McCain of Arizona, who ran unsuccessfully for president against Obama in 2008, also will attend, according to an aide. The New York Times said about 12 senators would attend.

At the heart of the U.S. fiscal crisis is disagreement over how to rein in the $16.7 trillion debt. Obama wants to narrow the fiscal gap with spending cuts and tax hikes. Republicans do not want to concede again on taxes after doing so in negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" at the New Year.

Last Friday marked the start of $85 billion in across-the-board budget cuts that are to be carried out by September 30. It was not clear whether Obama, in his new contacts with Republican senators, was still trying to negotiate a substitute for those cuts.

Republican leaders rejected higher taxes as part of a budget deal that would have avoided the cuts contained in the so-called sequester that kicked in Friday.

Lawmakers are working short-term to avoid a government shutdown when the current U.S. federal budget expires at the end of March. Bills moving through the House and Senate will incorporate the $85 billion in lower spending.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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