Obama courts key GOP lawmakers with social invites to White House

GOP leaders and the White House say the lunch Wednesday with President Barack Obama was productive. They say everyone agrees on the need to cut spending, but differ on the details. (Feb. 9)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 9:48 PM

President Obama coaxed House Republican leaders to join him for some fresh-baked apple cake. He invited a freshman GOP lawmaker to taste a special beer brewed by the White House. And he personally escorted Sen. John McCain into the Oval Office before the two sat down for a rare one-on-one session.

Over the past two weeks, Obama has sought to strike up a more intimate rapport with Republicans with whom he has long feuded but barely knows, and whose support he needs in a newly divided Washington. The courtship has come through a series of private sessions over lunch, in the Oval Office and even at that most chummy and American of events: a Super Bowl party.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who joined Obama for lunch Wednesday along with fellow Republican leaders, described the process as two sides "kind of feeling each other out."

"From where we were earlier to then, at least it's a better situation to where we're talking," McCarthy said, speaking hours after the lunch on the Ralph Bailey Show on KNZR-AM in his home town of Bakersfield, Calif.

Not that these are exactly breakthrough moments. Health care, for instance, did not even come up at the Wednesday lunch, according to participants.

Neither side appears eager to offer major concessions or spend more time together than absolutely necessary. Obama, who has never enjoyed the schmoozy side of politics, has enlisted help - bringing along the gregarious Vice President Biden and, at least on Wednesday, new chief of staff William M. Daley, both of whom have long-standing relationships with GOP leaders.

For Obama, the get-togethers are a chance to appear moderate and post-partisan as he heads into a reelection campaign in which his opponents plan to cast him as a champion of European-style socialism. And Republicans know they must show that their new power can lead to tangible policy achievements.

Both sides see room for compromise in pushing to ratify free-trade agreements, cut spending and remake the country's education system. That means looking for a bit more intimacy than some of their past bipartisan sessions, which have been marked by testy exchanges and snarky retorts - and helped spur hostility.

"The more we can humanize each other, the better it is," said freshman Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), who downed bratwurst and cheered on the Green Bay Packers as he chatted with Obama at the White House Super Bowl party.

Even so, both sides apparently also recognize the risks of angering their respective bases if they appear to be getting too cozy with each other.

When news surfaced that newly elected Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) had also accepted an invitation to the football festivities, a headline on the conservative blog Hot Air read: "Obama's Super Bowl Party: Should Pat Toomey Attend?"

Those perils may explain why the details of the new round of interactions are being held tightly.

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