By Richard Cowan and Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama, unable to persuade Republicans to accept higher taxes, is attempting to cobble together what he calls a "common-sense caucus" among lawmakers to help resolve U.S. budget woes and push his legislative agenda.
On Monday and in recent days, Obama has made individual phone calls to a number of senators in a search for common ground on $85 billion in budget cuts that went into effect last week, as well as his top priorities like deficit reduction, gun control and an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.
Gene Sperling, the White House senior economic official, said on the CNN program "State of the Union" on Sunday that Obama was contacting to lawmakers to talk about compromises that could include reforms to both the tax code and entitlement programs, which include Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare healthcare for the elderly and disabled.
It was unclear whether Obama hopes to craft a deal on these two controversial issues this month, as Congress attempts to pass legislation funding most government activities beyond March 27, or the president is eyeing other upcoming budget initiatives this year.
The list of lawmakers Obama contacted include Republican Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Rob Portman of Ohio and Susan Collins of Maine, according to either the senators or congressional aides. The White House declined to confirm the names.
The contacts represent part of Obama's emerging strategy on how to press ahead with his agenda after he tried to persuade Republican leaders to accept higher taxes as part of a budget deal that would have avoided the $85 billion in cuts that went into effect on Friday.
Obama wanted what he calls a "balanced" approach, to mix spending cuts with an end to tax loopholes enjoyed mostly by the wealthy as a way to replace the spending cuts known as "sequestration."
Republicans who control the House of Representatives complained the government is spending too much and rejected his plan, saying they had already agreed to higher taxes at the end of 2012.
The Obama effort is now aimed at determining whether he can break through to some senators and persuade some of them to lean his way.
"He believes that there are Republicans who - both those who have spoken publicly about it and others who have not - who support the general premise of balance," said White House spokesman Jay Carney.
An aide to Collins, a moderate, told Reuters that she spoke to Obama on Monday afternoon and they talked about "the need for a bipartisan agreement on several critical issues," such as how to rein in the $16.7 trillion U.S. debt and the sequestration cuts.
Collins "encouraged further discussions of a substantive nature," the aide said.
Coburn, who has been a member of a bipartisan deficit-reduction working group in the Senate, told reporters that he spoke to Obama on Monday, but he declined to provide details or even confirm whether the subject was deficit reduction.
Corker said in a short interview with Reuters that Obama called him on Saturday. "We had a conversation about fiscal issues," Corker said.
"I think the president knows I believe that fiscal issues are the biggest issue our nation faces. I know he knows I'd like to see that issue solved ... I'm certain that's why he called."
Corker also declined to provide any other details.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)