At the end of what President Obama called “a pretty shameful day for Washington,” he spent more than two hours Wednesday night engaged in a spirited discussion with a dozen Democratic senators at the Jefferson Hotel.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, organized the third in a series of private dinners Obama has held with lawmakers in an effort to make progress on his top legislative priorities. Earlier in the evening Obama appeared visibly angry and he spoke in the Rose Garden about the Senate’s rejection of a bipartisan proposal to strengthen background checks for gun sales.
After making brief opening remarks Obama invited the senators to take turns raising issues of concern, according to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), one of the dinner guests. Whitehouse agreed to only speak in broad terms about the meal, in order to preserve the private nature of the gathering.
"Any topic you want is on the table," the president said, according to Whitehouse, an invitation the senator said produced "an active, lively, jump in, jump-ball type of discussion."
"It was a terrific dinner," Whitehouse said, noting that Obama responded in detail to senators' observations on a range of policy topics. "It probably would have been a more cheerful evening if it weren’t for the shadow of this series of [gun] votes and the Boston [bombing] event, and those were obvious topics of discussion."
The president picked up the tab for the meal as he did last month, Whitehouse noted, and each guest was offered a choice of a range of appetizers, main courses and desserts. Obama skipped dessert altogether, explaining to the senators that in light of the fact that the White House has a pastry chef, the president and the first lady have agreed to only eat dessert on weekends to avoid putting on too much weight.
In a statement Wednesday night, Murray called the dinnner “a very productive continuation of the conversations many of us have been having with President Obama about creating jobs, tackling our deficit and debt in a balanced and bipartisan way, and other critical issues."
"It is clear to me that President Obama and Senate Democrats are united in our desire to end the constant lurching from crisis to crisis that is hurting middle class families and the economy," she said. "We also share the hope that some Republicans will finally step out of their partisan corner and join us at the table willing to offer some compromises that will help move our country and our economy forward.”
In addition to Whitehouse and Murray, the guests included Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as well as Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Ron Wyden (R-Ore.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
The two previous dinners — one at the Jefferson last month, and another at the White House last week — nvolved only Republicans. According to a White House official, other topics of discussion included immigration reform and the budget.
"The group had a productive discussion about a range of issues including ways to grow the economy, create jobs and strengthen the middle class," the official said. "The president said he will continue to work closely with the Senate as they work through the regular order budget process to see if there is common ground with congressional Republicans on a plan that reduces the deficit in a balanced way."
Obama "vowed to continue to fight to reduce gun violence" during the dinner, the White House official added, and when it came to the Boston terrorist attack, the president "reaffirmed that the full weight of the federal government is behind this investigation, which is being led by the FBI."
The group was much more optimistic about the prospects for immigration reform passing, Whitehouse said. "In politics issues are different," the senator said. "When one issue has a horrible day that doesn’t means another issue can’t have a very good day shortly thereafter."
When asked about the dinner Wednesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney described the meal as part of an ongoing “process” the president has undertaken to push his agenda on Capitol Hill.
“There’s a lot of business that he believes we need to get done here in Washington on behalf of the American people. And Senate Democrats are key to that progress that he wants to see made,” Carney said. “And you can be confident that his outreach will continue and these meetings, both large and small, will continue as he seeks to work with the Senate, work with the Congress, to get common-sense business done that the American people want their elected representatives to get done.”
And in a day that was dominated by the grave issues of gun control and terrorism, Obama’s dinner with Democrats offered the one note of levity. When asked why the first and third dinners were held at the Jefferson, as opposed to the second dinner that took place in the White House, Carney replied, “Well, there have only been two so far, and this is the third. I guess we're just mixing it up.”