Breaking bread: Obama dines with Republican senators amid sequester gridlock

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With his public approval numbers falling fast in the wake of the latest budget breakdown in Washington, President Obama on Wednesday reached out to rank-and-file Republicans to demonstrate he can at least sit down with his opponents to try to break through the partisan logjam.

On what was expected to be a whiteout day in Washington that fizzled into any icy mix, Mr. Obama made a peace offering to a group of Senate Republicans.


SEE ALSO: Democrat Steny Hoyer admits ‘we’re doing stupid things here’ with sequester


Mr. Obama invited them to dine on neutral ground that night at Washington’s upscale Jefferson Hotel near the White House, and paid the tab himself.

The dinner lasted nearly two hours. Sen. John McCain of Arizona emerged and initially told reporters that the dinner went “terrible,” before answering seriously that it went “just fine” and flashed a thumbs up sign. Others, such as Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, were more laconic after emerging from the hotel.

Asked whether they made any progress, Mr. Coburn said only, “We’ll see.”

A senior administration was similarly cautious, saying the president “greatly enjoyed the dinner and had a good exchange of ideas.”

The outreach effort to Republicans is jarring for some in the party, coming as it does after years of tense negotiations and complaints from both sides of the aisle that the president has failed to engage Congress on a host of legislative priorities.

Republicans are also cynical that the olive branch was offered only after Mr. Obama’s approval rating took a nosedive in the wake of both sides’ failure to reach a deal to avoid the automatic sequester spending cuts, allowing $85 billion in defense and nondefense budget cuts to start kicking in March 1.


SEE ALSO: Gohmert tells Obama: No White House tours? Then no golf trips


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 the country highlighting the worst possible impacts on jobs and the economy.

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

His disapproval rating also climbed, 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 blame for the sequester with 38 percent faulting Republicans and 33 percent blaming Mr. Obama.

Earlier Wednesday, the White House invited Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican 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.

In addition, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president next week will meet separately with House Republicans, as well as House and Senate Democrats.

“The president asked for the opportunity to speak to the caucuses about the priorities on his legislative agenda,” Mr. Carney said in a statement. “More details about the time and day of each meeting will be announced later.”

Mr. Obama also was on the phone this week directly reaching out to several rank-and-file Republicans to talk about fiscal issues. Mr. Obama called Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has aggressively opposed Mr. Obama on a number of issues in recent months, and spoke with him for 10 minutes.

Afterward, Mr. Graham said the conversation was “incredibly encouraging” and chastised the press for overanalyzing Mr. Obama’s motives, noting, “Everybody wants to, you know, be Dr. Phil about what he’s doing.”

“I can’t think of any major accomplishment in America in the private or public sector where no one ever talked to each other,” he said. “So I want to compliment the president for reaching out. I think he’s doing the right thing.”

Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine also said Mr. Obama called her Tuesday. She 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.

But critics argue the president’s new charm offensive will have little — if any — impact on moving the two sides closer together on the issues. Instead, they say the effort is a transparent attempt to bolster Mr. Obama’s sagging poll numbers and respond to accusations in the press that Mr. Obama has failed to engage Republicans, choosing instead to use scare tactics to force more tax increases.

“It’s a reactionary move by Obama to try to put the story away,” said Ron Bonjean, a Republican political consultant who has worked for several party leaders on Capitol Hill. “If these stories weren’t out there, it’s highly unlikely he would be sitting down with Republicans tonight. … This is political theater at its best.”

Democrats gave Mr. Obama credit for circumventing GOP leaders and trying to start a dialogue with rank-and-file Republicans. But they too predicted the president’s outreach efforts would do little to change the budget stalemate.

“In politics, as in life, it’s always better to be talking than not to be talking to the other side — it shows that he’s willing to go the extra mile to demonstrate he wants to get things done,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic operative on Capitol Hill who now works for Quinn Gillespie & Associates. “But anyone who thinks it’s going to change anything needs to have their head examined.”

Even as Mr. Obama was inviting Republicans to dinner, Organizing for America, the campaign committee that has transformed itself into an outside group supporting the administration’s agenda, was sending out emails to supporters blaming Republicans for letting the sequester cuts go into effect “because they simply wouldn’t support closing tax loopholes for millionaires and billionaires — for things like yachts and corporate jets.”

⦁ David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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