Obama dinner with Republicans signals shift in approach
President trying to cultivate alliances with those opposed to proposals
The dinner between President Barack Obama and a group of Senate Republicans on Wednesday -- described by different attendees as "honest," "interactive," and "cordial" -- launched the latest attempt by the chief executive to cultivate alliances with rivals who have stood opposed to his policy proposals.
On Thursday, Obama invited Rep. Paul Ryan and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the top Republican and Democrat on the House Budget Committee, to lunch at the White House. And next week he'll attend meetings on Capitol Hill with the entire House and Senate Republican coalitions, along with members of his own party.
Obama is attempting to reach rank-and-file lawmakers, who he's largely avoided in budget negotiations, choosing instead to work with the party's leadership. Social events with lawmakers were also largely absent from his calendar during his first term and the president was criticized for that from some members of Congress, including Democrats.
Obama took a blame-Congress approach in the showdown over the forced spending cuts that went into effect on Friday. A White House official told CNN on Wednesday that the president's outreach was a "change in approach" following the deadline-driven atmosphere of the previous week.
The dinner Wednesday, which came at Obama's request and included some of his most vocal critics, lasted a little over two hours. Emerging afterwards, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gave a thumbs-up and said the meal went "just fine."
Another GOP senator, who asked not to be named because it was a private event, described it as a "very positive meeting" that focused on the debt and deficit. The senator also used the words "interactive," "respectful," and "sober" to describe the gathering, adding that it was even jovial at times.
Another senator who asked not to be named said Republicans got into some detail on each subject, especially tax reform and Medicare. The senator said they were all candid about ideas, and what could be considered "challenges" within each party.
According to this senator, one Republican told the president that if he really wants to do tax reform in a way that attracts fiscal conservatives, he should entertain the idea of throwing out the tax code and revamping it and "do something dramatic."
Obama, the senator said, reacted "openly" to that and other ideas.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., called the dinner "a candid and constructive conversation on both sides."
"I think there are areas where we could reach common ground," Toomey said. "I think that is possible, but it's not going to happen over one dinner. If this were easy we would have done it years ago when it comes to solving our fiscal problems, reforming our entitlement programs, fixing our tax code."
The 12 senators invited to the dinner included McCain and Toomey, along with Lindsey Graham and South Carolina, Bob Corker of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Dan Coats of Indiana, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, and John Hoeven of North Dakota.
One senator said wine was poured but there was "not copious amounts of drinking." The president drank iced tea, and other senators did as well.
The venue of choice was the Jefferson Hotel, just blocks from the White House, where Obama held several fundraisers during last year's presidential campaign. The restaurant at the hotel is called Plume, an eatery with a prix fixe of $85 per person, plus gratuity and tax (about $106 per head). And that doesn't include beverages.
The White House said Obama paid the tab out of his own pocket.
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