At a moment of optimism, Obama plays dinner host for Republicans once again

April 10, 2013

On a day in Washington where legislative compromise suddenly seemed possible once again, President Obama will be hosting another dozen Senate Republicans for dinner Wednesday night.

(Haraz N. Ghanbari - AP)
(Haraz N. Ghanbari - AP)

This latest round of mealtime diplomacy -- which will take place in the White House's Old Family Dining Room, rather than the Jefferson Hotel -- will feature lawmakers ranging from moderate Maine Sen. Susan Collins to conservative John Boozman (Ark.). Other attendees include GOP Sens. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and John Thune (S.D.).

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who organized the gathering, said in an interview that he deliberately invited colleagues who spanned the spectrum "geographically, philosophically and attitudinally" so he could come up with "a representative group" of Senate Republicans.

While senators have spent much of the day analyzing a new compromise gun control proposal and a tentative agreement on immigration, several of Obama's dinner guests said they expected to focus at the dinner on the country's fiscal challenges and the president's new budget plan.

Isakson said he would talk to the president "about the number-one issue facing our country, in my opinion, our debt and our deficit," adding that Obama's decision to include entitlement reform as part of his budget proposal was "a bold thing."

Still, the ongoing budget battle is likely to color any discussion the president has with lawmakers, even if it takes place behind closed doors. Boozman said he was unimpressed with the White House budget rollout because it's been accompanied by attacks against the GOP's position.

"In order to get things done in this Congress, it's important to get things done before the next campaign starts," Boozman told reporters. "It's almost like they've moved the campaign season up, and that's not a good situation.'

And Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was even more scathing, offering Tuesday to order pizza and deliver it to the White House in light of the nation's current budget crunch.

“If we’re lucky, maybe the pizza will serve to illuminate an important economic point for President Obama: instead of redistributing the slices, the best way to make everyone happy is to make the pie bigger," he said. "It’s as true for dinner as it is for economic growth and opportunity.”

Despite these tensions, however, several Republicans said it was worth holding more intimate meetings with the president because he could communicate more effectively to Americans than they could on public policy issues.

"The president has to lead if we're going to solve the fiscal crisis we're facing," Collins said. "Really, only he has the bully pulpit to be able to speak, in prime time, and explain to the public the challenge that we do face."

Hatch said that while it was still somewhat uncertain whether the legislative and executive branch could strike a deal on major issues such as the budget, guns and immigration, "I hope so, and I think meetings like this help."

White House spokesman Jay Carney struck a similar tone Tuesday during his daily press briefing. "This will be, hopefully, in the president’s view, the same kind of constructive conversation that he had the first time with a different group of senators," Carney said. "And he believes that there is a common-sense caucus in Washington that embraces the idea that compromise requires moving off of your absolutist positions, accepting that you don't get everything you want; that ideological purity is not achievable legislatively when you have a divided government as we do in Washington."

And if all else fails, attendees said they could take comfort in the fine dining they could expect in the First Family's residence. When asked what he expected out of the session, Alexander replied with just two words: "Good dinner."

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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