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Obama's meeting with GOP conference: Cordial, but no white smoke of consensus

Four thousand miles from the papal conclave in Rome, President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans held their own closed-door meeting Wednesday, as the president continued a high-profile campaign for bipartisan comity in Washington.

But -- while Obama told reporters that he informed GOP attendees of the papal news -- there’s still no white smoke of consensus over the Capitol.

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Though Republicans described the 90-minute meeting  as cordial -- with the GOP conference even offering Obama a standing ovation before his remarks -- members said the talks yielded no major breakthroughs on the budgetary dispute that has locked the two  parties in political combat for months.

“Republicans want to balance the budget, the president doesn’t,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters after the meeting. “Republicans want to solve our long term debt problem, the president doesn’t.”

“But having said that, today was a good start,” he added. “I hope that these kinds of discussions can continue even though we have very real differences, [because] our job is to find common ground.”

Boehner said the tone of the meeting was “respectful” and that the discussion was “candid” and “productive.”

House Budget Committee chairman and former Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who lunched with Obama last week, said that the president “did himself some good.”

But other members described the session as little more than rhetorical leftovers.

“His whole talk was just a bunch of platitudes and no substance to it,” griped Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia.

And Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama charged that the president “wasn’t saying anything new.”

Sources in the room told reporters that Obama spoke about infrastructure and  touched on gun control and immigration legislation.

House Administration Committee head Candice Miller also asked the president about the cancellation of White House tours due to budget cuts, a move that critics say is merely a play for publicity.

"I asked the president if there was some way in the spirit of reaching out and working together if we could help him with his problem in the White House," Miller said after the meeting. "He said it was a determination of the Secret Service, and the math wasn't as easy to do as just giving up the congressional White House party or the picnic or what have you.”

The visit was the first meeting between the president and the full GOP conference since 2011, when members came to the White House to discuss the federal deficit. Obama last came to the Capitol to address House Republicans on their own turf in January 2009.

The president’s visit to the Capitol is the second of three trips down Pennsylvania Avenue this week. On Tuesday, he met with Democratic allies in the Senate; on Thursday, he is expected to address Senate Republicans. Last week, he shared meals with Republican lawmakers from both chambers.

But while his bipartisan outreach has received good reviews from participants --  with Republican senators calling the meetings cordial and candid -- some on the Hill are skeptical that the president’s calculation is more about headlines than harmony.

“I think that the general sense of the conference is the president is coming here because he saw his approval ratings dropping, and people were asking ‘why isn’t he in Washington negotiating?’” said one GOP aide before the meeting. “And we ask: Do we feel like we’re going to get different answers than scripted answers?”

Those Republicans found fodder Tuesday in a National Journal story that quoted an unnamed White House aide saying the outreach efforts are “a joke.”

“I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you,” the senior official reportedly said in the story.

The targets of the president’s outreach say that the true value of the series of meetings will become apparent as negotiations over pending legislation continues.

"He's the president and I wholeheartedly want to believe everything that he says, but after everything that has occurred I'm going to wait for the action," Rep Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., said. "If the president is sincere and really wants to work with us then that'll show itself over the next several months as we try to work on some of the biggest challenges this country has ever faced."

Still, despite the skepticism, the rare occasion of a presidential visit was enough to prompt an unexpected warning from GOP leaders: no asking for souvenirs.

A House leadership aide said that at a morning meeting, members were warned not to take pictures of the president and not ask for autographs --  to make sure the meeting ran on time. 

And as for the white smoke? 

Asked about the results of his own “conclave,” the president joked that the metaphor isn’t exactly a perfect match.  

“I think you’re stretching the analogy,”  he said, laughing.