Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) helped the White House arrange the president’s… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — With budget talks in tatters and his top priorities tied up in the Senate, President Obama took his Republican opponents out to dinner Wednesday, part of a multi-step, multi-meal plan to thaw the chilly relations with Congress that threaten his second-term agenda.
Obama and nearly a dozen GOP senators broke bread at the elegant Jefferson Hotel near the White House, a meeting the host and guests billed as another chance to revisit stalled negotiations over the nation's deficit.
Arranged with the help of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the meal was a rare display of after-hours schmoozing by a president who has largely dismissed the role of personal relationships in policymaking and often chooses to appeal directly to voters rather than lawmakers to win support for his initiatives.
But the gesture comes as the White House enters a new phase of its budget battles with Congress: after another failed attempt to push GOP leaders into a deal and well before the next high-stakes deadline this summer. The White House believes the next few months may be the time to try to sow seeds of goodwill.
"It's hard to sit across the table and have a rational conversation when there's a countdown clock on CNN," said a senior administration official, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss the plans. "What we're trying to do is find like-minded people to build momentum for a compromise."
The official said the dinner was part of a larger effort to open up new channels of cooperation with congressional Republicans, who have not been inclined toward cooperation with the president.
Obama will head to Capitol Hill next week to visit Republican senators behind closed doors at their weekly luncheon, which he has not done since May 2010. The visit will follow several calls from the president to key lawmakers, including one to Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the chief draftsman of the Republican budget plan. More outreach is expected, the official said.
"How do you say no to the president of the United States?" Graham said on Wednesday, as he expressed hope that the two sides would talk about the serious budget issues ahead.
The president also requested a meeting with Republicans in the House of Representatives, who have done the most to derail his legislative aims. The office of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) notified members in an email Wednesday that the president wanted time next week "to discuss various policy matters."
The congressional outreach comes after several rounds of failed attempts between Obama, Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to reach a large-scale deficit reduction package. In the latest turn, despite dire warnings from the White House, Democrats and Republicans did not come together last week to block $85 billion in automatic budget cuts — known as the sequester — from kicking in this year.
Even as the budget cuts slowly begin to take effect, the White House has been unable to rally a public outcry over the prospect of curbed services or furloughed federal workers.
Meanwhile, leaders from both parties have vowed not to threaten a showdown at the next major hurdle: a March 27 deadline to approve a bill to fund the government or risk a full-scale shutdown. The House passed a measure Wednesday that would keep the government running at the lower sequester levels through the end of the fiscal year, and the Senate is likely to follow suit.
That means some version of the across-the-board budget cuts, which both sides once claimed to loathe, seems all but certain to stay in place unless a broader deal can be forged.
Obama's outreach is designed to prepare the way for such a deal — or at least appear to be moving toward compromise on that goal. The White House has a strong political interest in not appearing to give up its pursuit of a so-called grand bargain on the deficit.
Both sides are bracing for another battle this summer over raising the legal limit on the federal debt, a debate that will be foreshadowed by their budget proposals.
Ryan, the former vice presidential nominee, is poised to unveil a House GOP blueprint with the ambitious goal of balancing the budget in 10 years. He will also revive the GOP plan to overhaul Medicare, changing it into a program that provides future seniors — those who are now younger than 55 or 56 — with a voucher they can use to buy private insurance or traditional Medicare.
In contrast, the proposal from Senate Democrats, which reflects Obama's priorities, will ask wealthier Americans and corporations to pay higher taxes.
"I think this whole thing will come to a crescendo this summer, and we're going to have to talk to each other to get an agreement about how to delay a debt crisis — how to save this country from the fiscal train wreck that's coming," Ryan said.