Barack Obama has held what he described as a "good" and "useful" meeting with House Republicans on Wednesday, though there was little sign that he had succeeded in persuading many of them to shift towards compromise on tax and spending.
House Republicans have proved to be the president's most implacable opponents over the last two years, blocking legislation and creating economic crisis after economic crisis.
The president took his new-found charm offensive to Capitol Hill to test whether engagement and dialogue might succeed where confrontation had failed.
Obama, who looked cheerful entering and leaving the meeting, told journalists at the end: "It was good. I enjoyed it. It was useful."
At a press conference after the meeting, House speaker John Boehner thanked the president for this visit and described the meeting as frank and productive. "Today was a good start," he said.
Republicans leaving the hour-long meeting said the president had been pleasant, albeit rather long-winded, in his 25-minute opening statement and in his answers. But, crucially, none said he had changed their mind.
Congressman John Carter from Texas summed up Republican sentiment when he was asked if anything positive had emerged from the meeting. "When you get the president to talk and lecture you, at least you get a chance to understand how he thinks. I disagree with everything he thinks," Carter, a judge and former Republican leader, said.
A consistent theme taken up by Republicans leaving the meeting was the suspicion that Obama was only engaging with them for politically cynical reasons, to give the impression – to the electorate, at least – that he was willing to work in a bipartisan fashion.
It had been Obama's first meeting in two years with the House GOP conference, many of whom were elected with the support of the Tea Party movement.
According to the White House, Obama is looking for a 'grand bargain', an overarching deal on tax and spending that would bring to an end the frequent economic crises that have dogged Washington over the last two years.
At the meeting in the basement of Congress, he told them he was less interested in balancing the budget over the next 10 years – a Republican priority – than in economic recovery.
He reiterated that he was prepared to offer cuts and concessions on reform of welfare benefits, which Republicans want and which is opposed by his own Democratic party. In return, he is seeking an increase in taxation through closing loopholes that help corporations and the wealthy.
A few Republicans at the meeting said they could countenance closing some tax loopholes but no major tax increases.
Obama also sought compromise on gun reform and immigration. Republicans said a deal on immigration reform was possible, but a deal on guns was unlikely.
Obama did not ask for another meeting nor was another invitation extended. But House Republican leaders later expressed hope that it would not be an isolated meeting.
The Republican House majority leader, Eric Cantor, sharing the platform with Boehner, voiced a view raised repeatedly by Republicans. "I hope the president is sincere in saying he wants to work with us," Cantor said.
Republican congressman Michael Grimm, from New York, echoed the sentiments of many of his colleagues when he described the mood as "respectful". He added: "It was not just platitudes and niceties."
Obama was passed a note during the meeting informing him a new pope had been chosen. He then informed the House Republicans. That was the only surprise announcement at the meeting.
"We have white smoke," Obama told them. A congressman shouted asked whether this meant White House tours, a victim of the sequester cuts, would be open again. Obama shot back: "Vatican tours are."
The gap between Republicans and the Democrats was highlighted when House Republicans produced a budget Tuesday calling for deep spending cuts, including welfare and opposition to tax rises.
Senate Democrats unveiled their budget Wednesday for the fiscal year starting October. The plan seeks $975bn in spending reductions over the next 10 years as well as $975bn in new tax revenue, much of it through closing loopholes that benefit the rich.
Obama is scheduled to have lunch with Senate Republicans on Thursday and will meet House Democrats separately the same day.
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