Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) leaves the Jefferson Hotel after a dinner meeting… (Cliff Owen, Associated…)
WASHINGTON — Earlier this year, President Obama joked that his daughters wanted to spend less time with him now that they were older, so he might ask Republicans to the White House to keep him company.
Maybe he wasn't kidding.
After fitful attempts in his first term to improve testy relations with congressional Republicans, Obama has launched a very public campaign to build stronger ties with his GOP rivals.
He treated a dozen senators to dinner Wednesday and plans to lunch with more lawmakers next week.
On Thursday, Obama's charm offensive set the table for one of the hardest nuts to crack — the top Republican budget expert, Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, who as the GOP vice presidential candidate tried to evict Obama from the executive mansion where he was invited to lunch.
Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, and his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, sat down with Obama for lentil soup and sea bass in a meeting that Ryan described as a "frank" and the White House called "constructive."
White House officials say the president is trying to find congressional allies to chart a new path on deficit reduction. Both parties have an interest in trying to strike a big deal, preferably before the next budget showdown in summer, when Obama must ask Congress to raise the legal limit on the national debt.
The four-to-five-month window offers Obama a chance to expand his contacts beyond House Speaker John A. Boehner and the Republican leaders he has tangled with previously. Administration officials say the White House is trying to build trust with lawmakers — or at least squelch the oft-repeated charge that the president prefers campaigning against Republicans to working with them.
The course correction appears, for now, to be sowing seeds of goodwill.
At the Jefferson Hotel, the Republican senators and the president engaged in what they described as an unusually honest exchange about the nation's fiscal problems.
"Heartfelt," Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota put it.
"Sincere," said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who sat to the president's right.
"Serious," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was on Obama's left.
Even Obama's body language was "agreeable," one senator said.
"To really pour out our hearts and souls on what we believe is necessary to address our long-term debt and deficit problems, the president was receptive to listening to that," said Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana.
As the group discussed changes to entitlement programs and an overhaul of the tax code, Obama expressed concern that Americans may not fully understand the fiscal challenges of the Medicare program.
Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told the president that he was in a unique position to explain the problem and help create public support for reforms. "If he would do that, it would be an incredibly positive sign," the senator said. "I'd try to do it, but I'm just a little senator from Wisconsin. I don't command the microphone."
Those kinds of actions from the president, senators said, is what they want to see as proof of Obama's intent.
"We really need to stay in this intense dialogue for the next four to five months," Hoeven said.
But even in the earliest stages of Obama's new inside game, the tricky task of courting rivals was clear.
Obama's outreach offensive comes as Organizing for Action, a group formed out of his campaign organization, is revving up campaign-style pressure on potential GOP allies. The targets include Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), a dinner guest with whom Obama exchanged pleasantries about their children, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who was on the receiving end of an Obama call this week as he seeks to form a "common sense" caucus.
And Republican have to mind their own politics.
Those who dined with Obama faced heat from tea party activists who suggested they should have been in the Senate chamber with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as he filibustered John Brennan's nomination as CIA director.
This split in the GOP is part of what has made negotiating with the Republicans over debt reduction a challenge for the president. The White House believes Boehner (R-Ohio) has too little control over House Republicans to be an effective negotiating partner, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) , who faces a potentially tough reelection in 2014, has been a fierce party stalwart and only an occasional deal maker.
Graham, who is up for reelection next year, brushed off worries about a backlash.
"If I can't go have dinner with the president of the United States to talk about the problems that face our nation," he said, "I shouldn't be running."
Times staff writers Christi Parsons and Matea Gold contributed to this report.