After weeks of blaming Republicans for the sequestration impasse that left the nation facing $85 billion in automatic spending cuts, President Obama launched an unexpected charm offensive, treating 12 Republican senators to dinner Wednesday where they discussed fiscal and other matters but came to no solid agreement.
Republican senators left feeling optimistic. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee told The Hill
the meeting heavily focused on "a way forward on the fiscal issues."
"We talked about a lot of issues, but really it was just a constructive conversation about a way of moving ahead and solving our nation's fiscal issues in general," Corker said. "It was not a negotiation, if you will —although lots of issues were discussed."
The senator suggested the president was interested in the so-called "grand bargain" rather than taking sequestration piecemeal.
"It was on dealing with the big issue of solving our fiscal problem and it was a constructive meeting," Corker said. "It was a very positive meeting, it really was.
"I think meetings like this are helpful and I think they build relationships," Corker added. “It was as social a meeting as you would find anywhere."
Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma both flashed the 'thumbs up' sign to reporters outside the Jefferson Hotel after dining with Obama and a dozen other senators for more than two hours.
When asked by another reporter how the dinner went, McCain jokingly said “terrible,” before adding that the event went “just fine,” the Associated Press reports.
And, Obama paid for the meal, the White House told The Post, though it did not disclose how much it cost.
Besides McCain and Coburn, the other GOPers invited included Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and John Hoeven of North Dakota.
While no major announcements or policy decisions came after the meal, GOP senators agree it was a step forward in easing relations on the Hill with the president.
“I think really what he is trying to do is start a discussion and kind of break the ice and that was appreciated,” said Johanns of Nebraska, one of the 12 Republicans at Obama's dinner. “Most of the meeting was spent on budget and [finding] a way forward. His goal is ours. We want to stop careening from crisis to crisis.”
Johanns told the Hill he is optimistic a deal can be reached.
“I think he’s very sincere. I think he wants to try to figure something out. Today was a good step and we’ll see what happens now,” he said.
Hoeven said the group address the sequestration cuts and how to come up with a "big deal" that covers entitlement reform while protecting Medicare and Social Security.
“We really did talk about a big deal that includes entitlement reform in a way that protects and preserves Social Security and Medicare but addresses the debt and the deficit,” he told The Hill. “What we really talked about is, ‘How do you get there?’ ”
The dinner was held at the hotel's Plume restaurant, known for its haute-cuisine.
“The president greatly enjoyed the dinner and had a good exchange of ideas with the senators,” said a senior administration official.
The dinner is part of a new approach by Obama in reaching out to rank-and-file Republicans rather than the GOP leadership in an effort to break the heavy political gridlock in Washington.
He also plans visits to Capitol Hill — and Obama spent the weekend talking to legislators by telephone, the Associated Press reports.
Obama's overtures come as budget talks near and as he seeks to rally support for his proposals on immigration and gun control.
President Obama’s new charm offensive underscores the limitations of his earlier attempts to use public pressure, rather than direct engagement, to win Republican cooperation. He spent weeks blaming Republicans for the sequestration impasse, saying their inflexibility would bring the nation to a halt. He engaged his underlings, including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood who claimed travelers would face long lines and more dangerous skies, and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano who warned of looser borders and fewer patrols
That strategy proved futile in recent weeks, as the White House and Congress failed to prevent the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that both sides said they wanted to avoid.
As the sequester took effect, Obama began quietly calling congressional Republicans to discuss the prospects for an elusive longer-term deficit reduction deal along with other second-term priorities.
Aides say Obama is concentrating his efforts on lawmakers with a history of bipartisan deal-making and those who have indicated some willingness to support increased tax revenue as part of a big deficit-cutting package.
In both his calls and dinner invitations, the president deliberately skipped over Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, the GOP leaders who insist that Obama will get no further tax hikes from Capitol Hill.
But Republicans have mixed responses to the Obama forays, the Associated Press reports. They say the president has previously shown little appetite for personal engagement with lawmakers, often preferring to assign those efforts to staff members and Vice President Joe Biden.
“He's never spent any time reaching out,” Coburn said before the dinner. He said he talked with Obama this week about gun legislation.
“The question is, is it starting to change because there are bad poll numbers or is it because he really decided he's going to lead and solve some of the problems of the country?” Coburn asked.
Meanwhile, South Carolina’s Graham said he was encouraged by Obama’s efforts.
A frequent critic of the White House on national security issues, Graham helped arrange the Wednesday dinner with McCain.
“This is how you solve hard problems,” Graham said.
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