- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2013

President Obama is convening a dinner with several GOP senators Wednesday evening at Washington’s Jefferson Hotel as both sides struggle to break through Washington’s partisan gridlock.

The dinner is the latest example of Mr. Obama’s new outreach effort to Republicans on Capitol Hill after years of tense negotiations and complaints from both sides of the aisle that the president has failed to engage Congress on budget matters, as well as other of top priorities.

The sit-down meal marks the first time Mr. Obama and Republicans have broken bread since March of last year when the president invited Congressional leaders to a lunch of hoagies.

Even though both sides came away from the lunch saying the discussion was healthy, they remained deeply divided on ways to reduce the nation’s deficit. The the tastiness of the sandwiches the only area of common ground.

The dinner comes after Mr. Obama and Republicans failed to reach a deal to avoid the so-called sequester, allowing $85 billion in automatic budget cuts to begin to kick in March 1.

Among those expected to attend include: Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.

Republican aides on Capitol Hill say the inclusion of fiscal conservative stalwarts such as Sens. Coburn and Toomey is a sign of that the dinner discussion will be a robust exchange rather than an attempt by the White House to convert more like-minded Republicans to his side.

Mr. Obama started reaching out to rank-and-file Senate Republicans earlier this week to try to break the logjam and avert more serious impacts of the sequestration, which could kick in over the next few weeks.

Sen. Graham told reporters Tuesday afternoon that Mr. Obama had called him and the two spoke for 10 minutes on fiscal issues. He said the conversation was “incredibly encouraging.”

“I’m very encouraged by what I see from the president in terms of what I see in terms of substance and tone,” Sen. Graham said. “He’s calling people – this is how you solve our problems. He’s working the phones, talking about … how can we get more people in the mix.”

Sen. Collins also said Mr. Obama called her Tuesday and reacted with cautious optimism.

“I think the important thing is, for the first time in a very long time, the president appears to be doing some outreach to both Republicans and Democrats, and that’s long overdue,” she told reporters Wednesday.

Earlier Wednesday, the White House invited Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other GOP senators to a lunch meeting next week, which will take place on Capitol Hill. It will be Mr. Obama’s first such visit in three years.

Budget negotiations between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill have been at a standstill for weeks as Mr. Obama has tried to take his dire warnings about the impact of the sequester directly to the people, touring around the country highlighting the worst possible impacts on jobs and the economy.

But recent poll numbers indicate that strategy may have backfired on the president. Mr. Obama’s approval rating has taken a hit since the sequester went into effect March 1, tumbling to its lowest level in Gallup’s three-day average since his re-election.

His disapproval rating also climbed six points, hitting 46 percent over the weekend, up from 40 percent a week earlier. Another poll, conducted by CBS News and the Wall Street Journal, showed the public almost evenly dividing their blame for the sequester with 38 percent blaming Republicans and 33 percent blaming Mr. Obama.