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.
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 CoburnTom CoburnFreedom Caucus saved Paul Ryan's job: GOP has promises to keep Don't be fooled: Carper and Norton don't fight for DC Coburn: Trump's tweets aren't presidential MORE (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 BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE (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 McCainJohn McCainTrump wall faces skepticism on border No Congress members along Mexico border support funding Trump's wall Treasury won’t grant Exxon drilling waiver for Russia MORE (R-Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamRussian interference looms over European elections Graham: I’m ‘all in’ for Trump Graham: US on a collision course with North Korea MORE (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 McDonoughDenis McDonoughSunday shows preview: McMaster hits circuit for second straight week Obama chief of staff: 'The president cannot order a wiretap' Obama's chief of staff joins foundation with focus on jobs MORE also called Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellAACR’s march on Washington Poll: Dems have enthusiasm edge for 2018 The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE (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 BoehnerJohn BoehnerLobbyists bounce back under Trump Business groups silent on Trump's Ex-Im nominee Chaffetz won't run for reelection MORE 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 CorkerBob CorkerGroups warn of rural health 'crisis' under ObamaCare repeal Ringing the alarm in Congress: 20 million lives at risk due to famine Senators want more efficient way to get food aid to Africa MORE (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 BurrRichard BurrFive questions for the House's new Russia investigator Why an independent counsel is necessary in an election probe Senators aim to extend federal conservation fund MORE (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 AyotteKelly AyotteHow Gorsuch's confirmation shapes the next Supreme Court battle THE MEMO: Trump set to notch needed win with Gorsuch Gorsuch sherpa: Dems giving GOP ‘no choice’ on nuclear option MORE (N.H.), Saxby ChamblissSaxby ChamblissGOP hopefuls crowd Georgia special race Democrats go for broke in race for Tom Price's seat Spicer: Trump will 'help the team' if needed in Georgia special election MORE (Ga.), Dan CoatsDan CoatsNorth Korea briefing moved to White House 'Can you hear me now?' Trump team voices credible threat of force McCain says he hasn't met with Trump since inauguration MORE (Ind.), John HoevenJohn HoevenHeitkamp raises .6 million for reelection bid: report Combating opioid epidemic, repealing ObamaCare will hurt the cause Senate panel considers how to fund Trump’s T infrastructure package MORE (N.D.), Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonTrump should work with Congress to block regulations on prepaid cards Five reasons to worry about the ShadowBrokers hack Border Patrol could drop polygraph requirement for new agents: report MORE (Wis.), Mike JohannsMike JohannsLobbying World To buy a Swiss company, ChemChina must pass through Washington Republican senator vows to block nominees over ObamaCare co-ops MORE (Neb.), Pat Toomey (Pa.), Corker and McCain were also invited to the dinner.
— Russell Berman and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.