WASHINGTON - It was supposed to be one of those closed-door sessions in which political leaders can get beyond partisanship to discuss a tough problem. But it didn't work out that way Wednesday as two busloads of House Republicans met with President Obama at the White House over how to rein in federal deficits and debt.
Instead of lowering the temperature, the two sides traded complaints and accused each other of partisanship and posturing in a vivid illustration of the tetchy atmosphere that dominates the capital these days.
Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, architect of a Medicare overhaul aimed at slashing the cost of the popular entitlement program by reducing the government's open-ended commitment to health-care for seniors, accused Obama of "mis-describing" his proposal and implored the president to ease up on "demagoguery."
In reply, Obama said he was no stranger to cartoonish depictions, reeling off a list of conservatives' favorite attack points: "I'm the death panel-supporting, socialist, may-not-have-been-born-here president," Obama said, according to people familiar with his remarks.
The meeting was meant to resolve pent-up grievances and move toward compromise on the deficit and the cost of health care for seniors. After an hour and 15 minutes of talk in the East Room, the two sides parted company having made little progress on either front.
Ground rules were strict. By agreement, neither side was allowed to bring press aides into the room, to minimize the post-summit spin.
But that didn't stop participants from tweeting their impressions. Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) sent out photos from the meeting in real time, including a blurry picture of Ryan, microphone in hand, accompanied by the line: "Ryan speaks the truth . . ."
The truth according to Ryan is that Obama and others have distorted his Medicare plan, which would give the next generation of seniors an annual stipend to buy health insurance on the private market.
Ryan told Obama how his Medicare plan would work and asked the president not to "demagogue" the issue. His GOP colleagues gave him a standing ovation.
Obama didn't back off his critique of the Ryan plan - that it is a vehicle to shift health-care costs from the government to the elderly.
The Treasury Department reiterated Wednesday that Aug. 2 remains the projected day the present debt ceiling - the country's legal borrowing limit - would be breached, setting in stone a drop-dead deadline as the Obama administration and congressional Republicans haggle over raising the limit.
The United States hit its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling May 16, but Treasury officials have been doing financial juggling to push off the date at which the nation would start defaulting on its obligations.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has said those "extraordinary measures" could only postpone the fiscal reckoning for weeks.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R., Ohio) told reporters at the Capitol he hoped deficit-reduction talks could be wrapped up within a month, and "the president agreed."
Boehner said talks led by Vice President Biden were making "marginal progress. But at the rate that they're going we'll be right up against the deadline" of Aug. 2.
Not raising the limit would bring on an unprecedented credit default that the White House and even many Republicans say would be disastrous for the U.S. economy.
Republicans are refusing to approve the debt-limit increase without spending cuts topping a trillion dollars at the same time. The White House is insisting that in addition to spending restraint the deficit trimming must include tax increases, which Republicans say are off the table.