President Barack Obama is having dinner with about a dozen Republican senators at a Washington hotel tonight in an effort to build a coalition on a deficit-cutting deal.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said he was among the senators scheduled to dine with the president at the Jefferson Hotel, a few blocks from the White House.
“I think there’s a lot to talk about,” Graham told reporters today in Washington. “There have been some problems but we’re all adults and you just have to put the country ahead of party and you’ll be fine.”
“When he reaches out, we need to reach back,” the senator added.
The dinner, and Obama’s phone calls to individual Republican lawmakers in the past several days, represent a shift in approach. In fiscal talks with Republicans since 2011, the president negotiated mainly with House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Rank-and-file lawmakers complained that Obama didn’t try to engage with them.
Obama also plans to have lunch at the Capitol with Senate Republicans on March 14, McConnell of Kentucky said in a statement. The meeting was requested by Obama yesterday through his chief of staff, McConnell said. Obama is scheduled to have a luncheon meeting with Senate Democrats March 12, and with House Republicans at a yet-to-be-determined time next week.
The House is voting today on a measure to finance the government from March 27, when current funding expires, through Sept. 30. The measure would preserve $85 billion in spending cuts that began March 1, while giving the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs more leeway to allocate funding. Leaders of both parties have said they expect to head off a government shutdown.
Meanwhile, the president is seeking support for more comprehensive legislation to reduce the deficit through a mix of tax increases, spending cuts and changes to entitlement programs.
Obama suggested a dinner when he telephoned Graham, and he asked the senator to assemble about a dozen lawmakers. The White House asked that the dinner be held at the Jefferson, not at the White House, because it would be deemed neutral territory, said a White House official who asked for anonymity to describe private discussions.
The president decided to reach out to rank-and-file lawmakers now because there isn’t a crisis environment that would get in way of discussions in search of common ground, the official said.
Other senators who confirmed they plan to attend the dinner tonight are Richard Burr of North Carolina, Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Dan Coats of Indiana, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Bob Corker of Tennessee, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, John McCain of Arizona and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
“I wouldn’t hype this up too much,” Corker said. “The group that is getting together is a pretty diverse mix: fiscal hawks like myself and also some defense guys. I think it’s helpful to have a conversation.”
Coburn said: “Any time somebody will feed me, I’m looking forward to it.”
Johnson, elected in 2010 with Tea Party backing, said he the dinner was “hopefully a sincere attempt to each out and start seriously addressing these problems.” He said tonight’s meeting will mark his first substantive discussion with Obama since a meeting with Republican senators during the debt ceiling debate in 2011.
“I’ll certainly give the president the benefit of the doubt,” Johnson said. “Hopefully he realizes how serious these problems are.”
Johnson said he would press the need “to start seriously taking a look at Social Security and Medicare, these programs that simply aren’t going to be around if we don’t work toward restructuring them so they are around for future generations.”
Hoeven said he will tell Obama that the “short-term, buy a little time” approach to governing that has dominated the past two years cast “a dark cloud of uncertainty” over the economy.
“I think the markets would respond dramatically, the economy would improve, knowing that Washington has finally gotten its act together and is not just going to push this down the road,” Hoeven said.
Investors haven’t shown concern that the standoff over taxes and spending will harm the economy. Stocks drifted between gains and losses today after the Dow Jones Industrial Average reached a record high yesterday. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was 1,539.81 at 12:59 p.m. in New York. The Dow rose 30.68 points, or 0.2 percent, to 14,284.45.
With a $1.2 trillion spending cut mandated for the next nine years, lawmakers say the coming months could offer one more opportunity for the type of deficit-reduction bargain that has eluded Congress and Obama.
South Dakota Senator John Thune, a member of the Republican leadership who isn’t included in tonight’s meeting, said he viewed Obama’s latest efforts to meet with Republicans as “a good sign” and “hopefully not too little too late.”
To show he’s serious, Obama needs to “put something on the table that he’s been reluctant to, that are going to be difficult for him with his political base,” Thune said.
“Whenever he gets into these discussions, when he gets a little pressure from his left, he pulls back,” Thune said. “If it’s actually meaningful and substantive, then he ought to come to it prepared to give something up.”
If recent history is a guide, the chances of success for a so-called grand bargain are slim. A bipartisan commission in 2010, a congressional supercommittee in 2011, and recurring talks between Obama and Boehner of Ohio didn’t produce a fiscal policy accord.
Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said today in an interview that Obama is trying to convince Republicans that “significant, meaningful deficit reduction” is possible as long as it includes tax increases, spending cuts and changes to entitlement programs.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said yesterday that Obama is pressing Senate Republicans “to take up his offer which remains on the table from the fiscal cliff negotiations and to move forward with a balanced approach to deficit reduction that includes revenues through tax reform.”