- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 24, 2009

While the White House is mum about who will be among the 300 or so lucky invitees to President Obama’s first state dinner Tuesday night, word is already leaking out about who’s not going to be there.

Chief among the non-attendees: top Republican lawmakers.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner was invited but won’t be there; he’s on Thanksgiving break and home in Ohio. His deputy, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, didn’t get an invitation to the dinner.

The president didn’t invite his 2008 rival, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, even though Mr. Obama the candidate pledged a post-partisan presidency.

Most senators will be back in their home states during the holiday break, and few Republicans want to return to Washington for a party packed with Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell received an invitation but decided to skip the dinner.

“Sen. McConnell is with his constituents this week and will be at Kentucky events tomorrow and tomorrow night,” Don Stewart, the senator’s communications director, said Monday.

Some top Democrats also found themselves out of the loop. Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who turned out to be a pivotal player in Saturday’s health care vote, didn’t rate an invitation. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus of Montana, who wrote the first draft of the bill, also didn’t get the vaunted engraved invitation to the black-tie dinner.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat turned independent who will be crucial to the fate of health care reform, won’t be attending the dinner. He prefers to stay in Connecticut.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was invited to Monday night’s session in the White House Situation Room to discuss Afghanistan but not to the dinner on Tuesday. Although Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will be there, her husband, Bill - a fierce Obama critic during his wife’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination - will not.

There’s much speculation about who will attend. According to rumors, talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, who endorsed Mr. Obama during the campaign, will be attending. But a friend of hers speaking on MSNBC said she will not attend. Reports emerged Monday that Hollywood will be in the house: DreamWorks partners David Geffen, Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, along with Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton and WME Entertainment Agency co-CEO Ari Emanuel, will attend, according to deadline.com.

But they won’t be inside the White House. The fete will be held in a massive tent instead of the ornate State Dining Room, which holds about 140 people.

The welcome for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be the biggest social event of the Obama White House so far. Award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson of the Aquavit restaurant in New York City will be working with White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford.

The menu has been kept top-secret, but when President George W. Bush hosted a state dinner for the Indian president in 2005, the White House served several Indian dishes: chilled asparagus soup, pan-roasted halibut, ginger-carrot butter, basmati rice with pistachios, herbed summer vegetables and, for dessert, mango, chocolate-cardamom and cashew ice creams.

The guest list is also a closely held secret. White House protocol dictates who gets invited. As always, the list will include top administration officials (Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, to name a few) ambassadors and dignitaries, along with members of Congress (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat will be there. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, will not.)

Also in line for invitations are prominent Indian-Americans (including actor Kal Penn, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and media personalities such as CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria). Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who is of Indian descent, also has been invited.

Since word leaked about the guest of honor for Mr. Obama’s first state dinner, Hollywood insiders have hounded Mr. Penn and pestered the lobbyists who represent India in Washington. One wannabe guest even had friends send letters of recommendation to the White House.

“The lobbying has been extremely intense,” said Bhavna Pandit, a Democratic fundraiser who specializes in the Indian-American community. “And I think it’s a good sign,” she said. “It’s got a lot to do with the fact that Indian-Americans are a lot more politically aware and engaged than they have been in the past.”

Over the past two decades, the Indian community has become increasingly organized and active in fundraising in Washington.

In 2002, the fledgling U.S. India Political Action Committee dispensed $23,000 to political candidates. Four years later, that number increased to more than $466,000, split roughly evenly between Democratic and Republican candidates.

The Indian American Leadership Initiative, which also has a PAC, was formed last year with the goal of electing more candidates of Indian heritage to public office.

The Obama administration’s selection is intended to serve as a symbol of the president’s goals for India-U.S. relations. But the demand for tickets from the Indian-American community sends its own signal - that of a small but growing ethnic constituency that is maturing as a political force.

The White House is expected to announce its list of dinner guests on Tuesday.

The day will kick off with a pomp-filled welcome ceremony on the South Lawn for Mr. Singh, who will then have a private Oval Office meeting with the president before holding a joint news conference.

• Matthew Mosk can be reached at mmosk@washingtontimes.com.

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