Obama takes GOP lawmakers out on a deficit dinner date in downtown DC

President Obama and congressional Republicans on Wednesday began a series of meetings aimed at chipping away years of accumulated mistrust and laying the groundwork for a major deficit-reduction deal.

Yet each side remains skeptical about the other’s motives, fearing this could be another round of posturing to set up arguments for the next election.

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Senate and House Republicans are encouraged that Obama has reached out to them to restart deficit talks, but some wonder if it’s merely a public relations ploy by the president to shore up sliding poll numbers.

The effort began Wednesday night, when the president hosted 12 GOP senators for dinner at The Jefferson, a luxury hotel a few blocks from the White House.

GOP senators say Obama called over the weekend to feel them out as potential partners on a deal to reform entitlement programs and the tax code, which could turn off $85 billion in automatic spending cuts this year.

Lawmakers described the outreach as a dramatic shift in style and tactics by the president, who kept them at arm’s length in his first term. 

“He’s never spent any time reaching out. It seems like it’s starting to change. The question is, is it starting to change because there are bad poll numbers or is it because he’s really decided he’s going to lead and solve some of the problems of the country?” said Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), who was invited with a small group of GOP senators to have dinner with Obama on Wednesday.

“I’m open-minded. I hope this is not check-the-box so he can then tell [reporters], ‘Hey, look, I met with the Republicans,’ ” said Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee and an ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). “So we’ll see.”

Several Republicans cited a new Reuters/Ipsos online poll showing Obama’s approval rating has slipped to 43 percent, saying that slide may have spurred the president’s outreach.

White House officials, for their part, are not certain whether lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Coburn are really interested in a deal.

“We’ll see ... we take them at their word that they want to work with us,” one official said. 

The Wednesday evening dinner between Obama and Republican senators at The Jefferson was arranged after the president asked Graham to pull together a small group of colleagues for a meeting. 

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough also called Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to set up a visit by the president to a Senate GOP lunch next week. Obama will attend a lunch with Senate Democrats at the Capitol Tuesday and then meet with Republicans Thursday.

White House staff is working to set up meetings with the House Republican Conference and the Democratic Caucus, as well.

“It’s clear to get anything done there’s going to need to be a coalition with moderates,” the senior official said.

“Clearly talking to Boehner has gotten us nowhere all the time. Now we’re looking to reach out to people who want to work with us. He’s trying to build on the idea of a common-sense caucus.”

Even the way news of Wednesday’s dinner surfaced underscored the fears and suspicions permeating the talks.

Graham told colleagues he envisioned the dinner as a small, private meeting at the White House. He was surprised when the White House decided to host it at a hotel and leaked the guest list and the location to the press, raising its profile. 

GOP senators say Obama showed a keen interest in reviving the prospect of a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal by working directly with rank-and-file lawmakers.

“I doubt he wants to spend the next three and a half years on budget and financial issues,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “Hopefully it’s a sign there’s an opportunity to put this issue behind us. I know all of us would like to do that.”

Boehner and McConnell have signaled they are through with summit-level talks with the president on the deficit. They have called for Congress to pass budget-cutting measures through regular order instead.

A senior Senate GOP aide characterized Wednesday’s dinner and next week’s lunch meeting more as “listening” than negotiating sessions.

A Democratic aide said the outlines of a deficit deal are clear. The aide noted Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, identified about $700 billion in tax revenues that could be collected by limiting tax breaks, and the president has signaled support for limiting the growth of Social Security by switching to the chained-CPI formula and finding $400 billion in savings from healthcare programs.

The senior administration official said Obama wants there to be more outreach to Capitol Hill than had occurred in the early days of his presidency.

In 2009, Obama waged a charm offensive to persuade former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to support the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

But efforts to court GOP lawmakers subsided as his first term wore on, and Republican leaders repeatedly unified their conferences to oppose his agenda.

Obama reaped political success in 2011 and 2012 by publicly campaigning against Republicans as obstructionists. While that tack helped boost his poll numbers before the election, it failed to yield a deal to turn off the sequester, which took effect last week.

Some Republicans think Obama has changed his course because face-to-face meetings give him the best chance to address the deficit and clear the decks for immigration reform and other priorities.

“I think there’s an opportunity for a really large deal sometime in the late spring. Maybe he’s trying to set the atmosphere and start anew. That’s a good thing,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).

Cole said Obama’s recent campaign to pressure Republicans to agree to raise taxes to stop the sequester backfired. 

“I think they tried to break us by running a political campaign and I think it was legislatively counterproductive. It actually pushed Republicans together. It got him mad,” Cole said.

He noted that Obama crisscrossed the country to inveigh against automatic spending cuts but did not meet with McConnell and Boehner until Friday, the day the sequester was due to start.

Republicans say they will judge Obama’s sincerity in pursuit of major compromise by what he offers in reforms to entitlement programs and mandatory spending cuts.

“If you look at the last four years it’s always been for optics,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said of Obama’s past outreach efforts.

Burr, who was invited to have dinner with Obama Wednesday, said the president can show himself a “willing partner” by “acknowledging we have to fix the things that are broken, and that’s entitlement reform and tax reform.” 

Republican Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), Dan Coats (Ind.), John Hoeven (N.D.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), Mike Johanns (Neb.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Corker and McCain were also invited to the dinner.  

— Russell Berman and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.