WASHINGTON - Polite yet firm, Senate Republicans told President Obama on Thursday to tone down his political attacks and prod Democratic allies to support controversial changes in Medicare if he wants a compromise reducing deficits and providing stability to federal benefit programs.
Participants at a 90-minute closed-door meeting said Obama acknowledged the point without yielding ground - and noted that Republicans criticize him freely.
"To quote an old Chicago politician, 'Politics ain't beanbag,' " the president said.
The discussion came as Obama wrapped up a highly publicized round of meetings with rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties and both houses of Congress in hopes of building support for a second-term agenda of deficit reduction, immigration overhaul and gun control.
Obama met separately with Senate Republicans and House Democrats as legislation to lock in $85 billion in spending cuts and avert a government shutdown on March 27 made plodding progress. Separately, the two parties advanced rival longer-term budgets in both houses.
No breakthroughs had been anticipated and none was reported in the closed-door sessions, although Obama told reporters before returning to the White House, "We're making progress."
In the Senate, several Republicans told the president his rhetoric was not conducive to compromise.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., referred to a recent interview in which Obama said some Republicans want to eviscerate Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
"Nobody here believes those programs ought to be gutted," Thune told Obama, the senator later recalled.
"It's better if the president is here fully engaged with us than traveling around the country saying Congress isn't doing its job," Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., later told reporters, summarizing comments he and others had made. "The president needs to be here working side by side with Congress."
Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the message to Obama had been: "Step 1 is to work with us, not just heckle and taunt us on the campaign trail, and Step 2 is to lead."
Alexander said Obama must also "go against the grain in his own party," much as Lyndon Johnson did in winning civil-rights legislation from Congress in the 1960s and Richard Nixon did in forging an opening with China in the 1970s.
Obama has repeatedly told Republicans in recent days he supports curtailing the growth of cost-of-living benefits for Social Security and other benefit programs as part of a compromise, as well as raising costs for wealthier Medicare beneficiaries.
He has also told them they must agree to raise revenue - although not tax rates - as part of any deal.
So far, at least, Republicans have noted that proposals to overhaul Medicare include higher premiums or co-payments for wealthier seniors. Some also have said they could accept higher revenues as part of tax reform that stimulates economic growth.
Neither approach is likely to guarantee enough revenue to satisfy Obama or congressional Democrats.
If nothing else, the reviews of Obama's meeting with Senate Republicans were uniformly positive.
"We'll see where we go from here, but it was a great meeting," said GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who normally is one of the president's sharpest critics in Congress.