Lawmakers and aides say the effort has begun to yield modest dividends. Last week, Congress managed to pass a continuing resolution averting another potential government shutdown.
“It’s sort of like the two sides are looking across the table and thinking, ‘We really are going to have to live in this house for the next four years. Let’s divide up who does the dishes: I’ll take Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday,’ ” said Cole, who has broken ranks with his party on occasion. “I sort of see the CR as a confidence builder.”
But diplomacy still has its limits. On Friday, the White House formally withdrew the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to join the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit after Republicans had blocked her appointment for years.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had lunch with both Obama and his panel’s ranking Democratic member, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), on March 7. But last week, Ryan’s aides had no contact with White House officials as they pushed through their conservative budget plan.
By contrast, Obama called Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to thank her for her work on the Senate Democrats’ budget blueprint.
“This is not a week where they are going to pick up the phone and call House Republicans,” Van Hollen said, referring to White House officials.
“After a week of constructive meetings, the president and his senior team have continued conversations with members,” White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage wrote in an e-mail, adding: “That outreach will continue.”
Van Hollen said that one of the inherent challenges is that House GOP leaders are willing to engage with Obama only in a public context — such as during a budget conference — for fear of alienating their rank-and-file members.
Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), for example, said he hesitated for a moment when the White House called him Feb. 25 as he was sitting in Norfolk’s Piccadilly Cafe to ask whether he wanted to travel to Hampton Roads with the president aboard Air Force One.
“I had to do two hours of thinking in about four of five seconds,” Rigell said, knowing he would come under attack from conservatives for having a private talk with the president. “I just went, ‘Oh my, here we go.’ But it was a good conversation, I’m glad we had it.”
Rigell, who said he told Obama it was urgent to cut federal spending, said the discussion did not transform his relationship with the White House.