Correction:

An earlier version of this article attributed to the office of Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.) an assertion that Republican pollster Frank Luntz was attempting to reunite some lawmakers who had attended a 2009 inauguration dinner for a 2013 inauguration dinner. Johnson’s office confirmed that Johnson would attend this year’s gathering with Luntz and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.). But it did not characterize that dinner as an attempt by Luntz to reunite Johnson, Cantor and other lawmakers who had attended the 2009 dinner. This version has been updated.

Republican strategists return to the dinner table, hungering for a way forward

Chris Whetzel/For The Washington Post

If at first you don’t succeed . . .

On inauguration night four years ago, pollster Frank Luntz organized a strategy session for leading Republicans at the Caucus Room, a steakhouse in downtown D.C. The widely reported dinner has become the creation myth of the Obama opposition, in which Luntz, former speaker Newt Gingrich, Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.), Paul Ryan (Wis.) and other leading Republican lawmakers from both chambers plotted how to confront the president. The Republicans giddily came away from the four-hour dinner with a plan to weaken Obama through blanket opposition. Also on their to-do list: wresting control of the House and Senate from Democrats and defeating Obama in 2012.

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“We talked about strategically where we were and how to move forward,” said Gingrich, who addressed the lawmakers, who were arranged in a rectangle of dinner tables. “If he moved in one direction, we would have to be conciliatory. If he moved in the other direction, we could be very, very confrontational.”

That strategy didn’t exactly pan out, as witnessed by a second Obama inauguration to take place Monday. “In retrospect, to me it would not seem an effective strategy,” said Tom Coburn, a Republican senator from Oklahoma and a guest at the 2009 dinner.

Four years after the dinner, which was first reported by Robert Draper in his book “Do Not Ask What Good We Do,” Republicans are again bruised and in search of a way forward. But they still have to eat — and while they’re at it, they might as well get a little work done.

Some of the 2009 guests are breaking off into their own Monday night dinner groups (“We’ll find some Mexican restaurant somewhere,” said Coburn, who plans to discuss the debt limit with his friends, GOP Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and Richard Burr of North Carolina). Others are legally barred from breaking bread (“The crazy ethics rules will keep me from meeting with any members,” said Republican former senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who now heads up the Heritage Foundation. “We’ll just stay away for now.”).

Some of the band is getting back together, according to the office of Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (R-Wis.). This year’s strategy session will not be held in one of the private salons of the Caucus Room, much to the chagrin of Cristina Cravedi, the restaurant’s special-events coordinator, who said all the attention to the last banquet “was good for business.” Luntz, along with former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour (R) and power lawyer Tom Boggs, is an investor in the Caucus Room.

On Sunday, a few minutes after chatting with Obama confidant David Axelrod at Cafe Milano, Luntz declined to confirm or deny this year’s dinner. But he claimed that the depiction of his dinner four years ago was inaccurate. “There was never a conversation about how to make Obama look bad; that was never part of it,” he said, complaining that “the blogs go and accuse me of treason, literally treason — that I should be shot!” (Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, said, “We generally don’t comment on Frank Luntz’s dinner plans.”)

Johnson’s office confirmed that the congressman would attend a dinner with Luntz and Cantor.

Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), who attended the last dinner (“The first question was, ‘Are you going to accept the fate that falls your way? No!’ ”), said that he again planned to dine with Cantor and Jim Jordan, a conservative Ohio representative who was forced to apologize for lobbying colleagues to oppose House Speaker John A. Boehner’s debt plan. “There will be another one of those and it will be equally expressive,” he said of the dinner. (Asked whether he meant the Luntz dinner, he said, “I’m not going to spill those beans. I’m going to let you call Frank.”)

Sessions argued that despite Obama’s win, the 2009 plan was actually a rousing success. “We won the majority twice now” in the House, he said, and Republicans in that chamber had created the right climate for a competent presidential candidate to oust Obama. And he believed that Democrats will now want to work with Republicans. Obama is “not the same guy is my argument,” Sessions said. “There will be more of a reasoning and a reality check about, ‘Hmmm, what’s that L word?’ ” Pause. “Legacy.”

DeMint, who left his Senate seat for a far more lucrative perch at the Heritage Foundation, was equally insistent that conservatives had a lot to be happy about in the past four years (“The evidence is clear”) and blamed the Republican establishment for disregarding the enthusiasm and success of tea party conservatives and nominating Mitt Romney.

But he was publicly less sanguine about chances for compromise. “I don’t see anything good coming out of Washington for the next four years,” he said. Instead, he thought conservatives — not Republicans, he specified — would be better served thinking locally. “The action is pretty much, over the next four years, going to be at the state level,” he said.

Coburn likewise foresaw a “pitched battle” for the next four years, especially after what he considered the president’s deceit on spending cuts. Coburn said that while there were “plans being made behind the scenes,” this time, he said, the question should not be how do Republicans gain an advantage. “It should be, how do you solve problems.”

Still, some Republicans were looking for political advantage. “Every conservative gain will come by strategically setting up fights we can win,” Gingrich wrote in a policy proposal earlier this month. The failed presidential candidate concluded, “In the process we will set the stage for very successful elections in 2014 and 2016.”

Karen Tumulty contributed to this report

 
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