WHEELING - Sen. Rob Portman commended President Barack Obama's efforts to reach out to Republican senators regarding the nation's fiscal issues - but Portman also declined Obama's dinner invitation.
Obama asked Republican senators to meet with him for dinner outside the White House on Wednesday, prompting critics to say the move was more for show than about cutting the fiscal fat. Portman, R-Ohio, isn't sure.
"I think the jury is still out - but I hope it's real," he said. "I believe it is in the president's interest to solve these problems.
"I did have a conversation with the president over the weekend. But I didn't attend the dinner even though I was asked because I had another dinner," he added. "My dinner was with a Democrat senator discussing the same issues."
Portman said Republicans who ate dinner with the president described the meeting as "cordial and candid."
"So, I'm hopeful," he said. "In the last couple of months, the president has decided to go back on the campaign trail rather than governing. I've been frank in my discussions with the administration about that.
"Now there's a change of heart, a willingness to sit down and work through our fiscal problems," Portman continued. "I think that's great. And I will be eager to be a part of that."
Portman believes there is an answer to the nation's fiscal problems - and he has been working with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to reduce unsustainable spending on programs like Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.
Legislators must address spending cuts and tax reforms to boost the economy, he said.
"The sequester focuses on a relatively small part of the spending," Portman said. "Half of the sequester cuts come from about 17 percent of the federal budget - which is the Defense Department. There needs to be a broader effort. And over the short term, the president needs flexibility to be able to put the sequester cuts in place in a smarter way.
"In the longer term, Congress needs to do its work," he added. "It needs to keep the savings that are in sequester, but do it until it prioritizes the programs that are working and finds the savings in less important areas in our $3.6 trillion federal budget."
He said he welcomes the president's overtures and hopes Obama is serious about solving the nation's economic woes in the coming months.
"Our country is in trouble, and I think it's not just about the record debt and deficit," Portman noted. "It's also about the weak economic growth that's the result of our not dealing with the fiscal problem.
"I am hopeful this window of opportunity between now and the end of the summer - when the debt limit is liable to come up again - is the critical opportunity. It's our last opportunity before the president turns his attention more toward the 2014 election. I am hopeful that Democrats and Republicans alike take up the president's offer to sit down and see what we can agree on."