Preparing for what promises to be a monthslong negotiation over what to do about the spiraling U.S. debt, Vice President Joe Biden and top lawmakers are hoping to find common ground on cutting a deficit that could reach $1.6 trillion this year.
Both sides have modest expectations going into Thursday morning's meeting at Blair House.
"This perhaps is just the beginning, but one that can hopefully form the framework for a productive series of meetings," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who represents House Republicans. "We need to understand where they're coming from."
The talks come as Congress begins to consider raising the debt ceiling above its current $14.3 trillion limit. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has effectively taken some pressure off the talks by informing Congress this week that the government could continue to meet its obligations through Aug. 2.
All sides -- the White House and Democrats and Republicans in Congress -- agree that spending cuts need to be approved in conjunction with must-pass legislation increasing the government's ability to borrow to pay its bills. Treasury said Wednesday that the government is borrowing an average of $125 billion a month.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said the meeting, expected to last two hours, "is the beginning of an important process."
The meeting is designed to have all sides place their plans on the table, narrow the focus to areas of common ground and begin setting up a framework for discussions.
Biden is not expected to bring a new proposal to the table. But the White House team will have in hand more detail based on Obama's April proposal to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years.
In addition to Biden, the administration will be represented by Geithner and White House budget director Jacob Lew.
"We're at an important point here where Republicans and Democrats alike share, recognize the problem -- that's important," Carney said. "They share the same end goal, which is $4 trillion in deficit reduction. And they share the same general idea of what the timeline should be, 10 to 12 years."
But Obama's plan calls for about $1 trillion in higher revenues, a nonstarter with House Republicans. At the same time, GOP plans to slash Medicaid and turn Medicare into a program in which future beneficiaries receive subsidies to purchase private health insurance is a dead letter with the White House and Democrats.
Neither side seems to have any preconceptions that the talks will lead to a full-blown restructuring of entitlement programs and taxes, but they hope to assemble the building blocks toward a sizable deficit reduction plan.
Six lawmakers will attend: Cantor; Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona; Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii; Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.; and senior House Democrats Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.
Some Republicans hope to attach legislation sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., to the so-called debt limit bill. Their proposal would cap spending at about 21 percent of the size of the economy, backed up by automatic spending cuts if Congress is unable to enact legislation that brings spending in under the cap.
The White House strongly opposes the idea, saying it would force drastic, across-the-board cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid while doing nothing to force lawmakers to clean out a tax code laden with tax breaks.
"Arbitrary spending caps are nothing but a backdoor means of imposing immediate and deep cuts in Medicare and Social Security," said Kenneth Baer, spokesman for the White House budget office.
Cantor wouldn't dismiss the idea, but he said Republicans want something concrete immediately.
"All that is fine, but the history of Congress has been that anytime you put enforcement mechanisms in place like that, ultimately they're waived," he said. "We're about trying to affect real cuts, real reforms this year."