President Barack Obama slipped into Annapolis Wednesday for a private meeting with U.S. Senate Democrats focused on the nation's latest fiscal crisis — a visit that temporarily closed roads and a handful of businesses a mile from the Maryland State House.
The president met for about two hours with senators gathered at the Westin Annapolis for their annual retreat. The meeting, which began Tuesday, was an opportunity for lawmakers to discuss strategy for the coming year and also to meet with Gov. Martin O'Malley, who many believe will seek the party's presidential nomination in 2016.
Lawmakers emerged from their meeting with Obama unwilling to talk specifics — it was considered off the record — but said the bulk of the discussion hinged on the roughly $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts that will begin next month unless Congress acts.
"We've got to deal with this because the consequences to the economy are significant," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "We have to get over this."
Mikulski said she used the meeting to note her desire to pass a large spending bill this year to fund the federal government rather than relying on the stopgap measures Congress has recently favored. Those temporary spending bills hold funding to the previous year's level, which Mikulski called inefficient.
She also said she asked the president to allow department heads to discuss the impact the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, would have on the economy. The Obama administration recently required all media interviews with agency leaders about sequestration to be cleared through the White House.
Several businesses near the hotel voluntarily closed for part of the day due to security, but Annapolis police Detective Amy Miguez said she received no reports of serious traffic issues.
Riccardo Santoro, owner of Varuna Aveda Salon Spa in the Park Place complex next to the hotel said he closed until 2 p.m., a move he said cost about $1,200 in revenue.
"Nobody can get in," he said, noting the closure of a portion of West Street.
Others saw the visit as a boost.
"We've actually had a bit of an influx of business this morning," said Stephanie Wiedenfeld, manager of Miss Shirley's Café on West Street.
Obama, whose helicopter landed at the U.S. Naval Academy, gave brief remarks at the meeting, took questions from 10 lawmakers and then spent an hour visiting senators at their tables, a White House aide said. The meeting was closed to reporters and the president made no other public appearances in Annapolis.
Most lawmakers arrived by chartered bus Tuesday and rarely left the hotel. They had dinner with O'Malley at the governor's residence Tuesday after touring the State House. Several state lawmakers who are also staying at the Westin said the senators did not join them in the hotel bar Tuesday night but instead attended a private reception in another part of the building.
Obama and the senators came to Annapolis amid the legislative session of the General Assembly, in which state politicians are considering gun control measures, including an assault weapons ban and licensing hand gun buyers. Gun control has been a top issue for Obama and Congress as well, although the focus of the federal legislation is increasingly shifting to background checks and stiffer penalties for weapons trafficking.
Sen. Ben Cardin said gun control and immigration came up in the meeting with the president, but not in depth. "It was a pretty candid discussion about economic growth, jobs…part of it was dealing with sequestration in a balanced way," the Maryland Democrat said.
Congress has until the end of February to deal with sequestration or put it off temporarily, as lawmakers did in January as part the deal to avert the "fiscal cliff."
As pessimism has deepened over Washington's ability to broker an agreement on the cuts, Obama said Tuesday he would support another short-term fix to give the GOP-led House and Democrat-controlled Senate more time to negotiate.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, said Wednesday that might be the best approach.
"I'd rather have a long term [agreement]. I'm tired of this cliff-hopping we're 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."
The legislative retreats are common and are usually held in Maryland or Virginia. House Republicans gathered in Baltimore last year and Democrats met in Cambridge.
In a statement, David Ferguson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party, described the meeting as a "shameful use of their time and resources."
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