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Obama, Senate Democrats Talk Budget at Retreat

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Looming automatic spending cuts and other economic issues dominated talks Wednesday at a closed-door meeting between the Senate Democratic caucus and President Barack Obama, members said.

“We talked a lot about sequestration and how to get this economy moving forward to create jobs,” Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., after meeting with Obama at the Democrats’ annual retreat in Annapolis, Md.

“We know that some of the spending cuts that we have had have cost us jobs and economic growth in this nation,” Durbin continued. “We really have to keep our eye on the prize. Getting more Americans back to work [and] paying taxes is a good way to reduce the deficit.”

He declined to give specifics on what exactly was said by the president or senators, but he noted that foreign affairs, immigration reform and reducing gun violence were also discussed.

The president was with the Democrats for about two hours. He spoke for 15 minutes, and the rest of the time he took questions and spoke with members face to face.

Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin said, “It was a pretty candid discussion about economic growth, jobs and how to create jobs. Part of it was dealing with sequestration in a balanced way, which is what our caucus has been talking about.”

“We don’t want to see sequestration, but we have to [avert] it in a way that is smart for economic growth,” he continued. “That means balance, revenues and spending cuts. I think it was the most important part of our issues meetings.”

Obama’s appearance before the caucus came a day after he called on Congress to come up with a package of new revenue and cuts as a way to delay about $109 billion in automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, that are set to go into effect March 1.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., said she recommended putting together a longer-term package to address all nine years of cuts instead of just those set to hit this year. However, she supports the president’s short-term plan.

“We need a longer-range solution, but right now we have to deal with this because of the consequences to the economy are significant and severe,” she said.

“I think president is fully engaged,” Mikulski said. “We had a very good conversation. We will be working closely with the White House on a balanced package between revenue and some targeted additional cuts.”

Mikulski also urged the president to “unleash his domestic cabinet to start talking about the consequences of sequester.”

“I’ve pressed it and I think you will see a difference now,” she said.

Mikulski said the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, stands to lose $6 billion to sequestration, and the Department of Homeland Security will take a $3.7 billion cut.

Durbin also lamented the short-term budgeting plans that have dominated the past few months. At the beginning of this year, Congress approved a fiscal cliff deal that allowed for higher taxes on wealthier taxpayers and delayed sequestration until March 1. The cuts were initially set to hit Jan. 2.

“I’d rather have a long-term [plan], I am tired of this cliff-hopping that we have been doing on Capitol Hill,” Durbin said. “I think the president feels the same way. But he’s trying to buy some time to get through March. March is a rocky month for us with the sequestration followed by the CR.”

The continuing resolution, or CR, is a stopgap measure that funds the federal government and is set to expire March 27. If Congress fails to replace it or extend it, the government will shut down.

Durbin echoed the president’s call for a plan that includes revenue and cuts.

“I think there ought to be a balanced approach, thoughtful spending cuts, and, as the president has said so often, don’t short-change the investments in our future,” he said.

Meanwhile, Durbin also noted that he hopes that Congress can pass a postal reform bill. The U.S. Postal Service announced Wednesday that it plans to stop Saturday delivery by August.

“I am anxious to see the reaction in Illinois.” Durbin said. “It has its critics, but its supporters as well.”

The Postal Service had a deficit of $16 billion last fiscal year.

“There are ways we can override their decision, with riders on appropriations bills for example, but I’d prefer a postal reform bill like we did last year,” Durbin said.

He also said he doesn’t expect a filibuster of former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to be secretary of Defense.

“I don’t believe it will be,” Durbin said when asked. “I’ve spoken to some key Republican senators who said that they wouldn’t do that. I am glad to hear that. I think that is a dangerous precedent to do that.”

He also believes that John Brennan is on track to be confirmed as CIA director.

“I haven’t followed that as closely,” Durbin said, adding, “I have met with him; I’m impressed with him.

“Some of the things he’s told me he’s already stated publicly about having established public standards for some of these important decisions to be made by the intelligence community,” Durbin continued. “That I think meets our obligation as the legislative branch to represent the legislative branch in making these decisions.

His comments contrast with those of Sen. Ron Wyden , D-Ore., who said earlier today that he intends to “pull out all the stops” in his effort to get legal analysis for targeted killings of U.S. citizens suspected of being terrorists.

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