President Obama's dinner targets stalemate in Congress


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WASHINGTON -- Breaking bread could be the first step toward breaking Washington's political logjam.

That appeared to be President Barack Obama's motive for inviting a group of Senate Republicans to a rare dinner Wednesday at what The Washington Post called a "neutral and tony location," the city's Jefferson Hotel.

The dinner marked a change for a president who for the most part has preferred to rally public support for his positions rather than negotiate policy directly with lawmakers. The White House says the president paid for the meal out of his own pocket. He is planning visits in coming days to Capitol Hill to speak with legislative caucuses of both parties.

"The tone was very cordial and very constructive. It was candid," one dinner guest, Pennsylvania's Sen. Pat Toomey, said after the meal. "We all realized what a tough challenge it is to really resolve the big fiscal challenges."

Most of the dinner conversations addressed fiscal issues.

"We drilled down into specifics on fiscal policy, but I would rather not get into that," Mr. Toomey said, "because it was in private conversation."

He ordered steak but said he didn't notice what the president ate.

"We had a very constructive conversation," Mr. Toomey said, "and I was able to make the points I wanted to make, and the president was able to make the points he wanted to make."

Mr. Toomey said he had a similar conversation earlier in the day, when the president phoned him to explain his dinner agenda.

"There are two big ideas I stressed to the president," he said before the meeting. "In order to have the economic growth and job creation that we need, we must be on a sustainable fiscal path, with long-term structural reforms of the mandatory health care programs.

"The second huge opportunity that I will stress with President Obama is that we must have tax reform. That means simplifying the tax code, wiping out preferences and lowering marginal rates."

Another Republican at dinner, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, said earlier he expected a number of attendees to express their views to the president on White House policy.

"They will try to talk some sense into him, and he'll try to talk some sense into us," Mr. Graham said. "I hope it bears fruit, but I know this: If we never talk to each other, I know exactly what's going to happen -- this country is going to fail."

Mr. Graham expressed no expectations. "Everybody wants to talk seriously about the issues of the day, and if he just wants to have dinner together so we can get to know each other better, that's fine with me," he said.

A White House official said Mr. Graham compiled the dinner's guest list at the president's request.

"How do you say no to the president of the United States, who would like to have dinner with some of your colleagues? You don't. Anybody who would do that in this business is in the wrong position," Mr. Graham told reporters after word leaked of the dinner, which was supposed to be kept under wraps.

He said dinner meetings between presidents and senators should be routine, not events so rare that they spur headlines.

According to the White House, attendees included Bob Corker of Kentucky, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, Dan Coats of Indiana, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

Notably missing from the list: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., whose spokesman said he wasn't invited.

Mr. Toomey's profile has been rising in the Senate. A member of the Budget and Finance committees, he served on the 2011 Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction and co-wrote the Senate Republicans' failed proposal last week to avoid the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts, known as the sequester.

With the across-the-board spending cuts now taking hold, White House aides said Mr. Obama sees an opportunity for productive discussions with Republicans over how to replace the sequester with a more thoughtful and less painful deficit-reduction plan.

Aides say Mr. Obama accepts that the sequester cuts are here to stay, for the moment at least. But he wants to replace them quickly with a deal that includes overhauling entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security in exchange for raising $600 billion in new revenue by overhauling the tax code.

Entitlements were shielded from the sequester, which was designed to hit year after year for the next decade and total $1.2 trillion in cuts. If it continues, domestic and military programs would continue to be hit particularly hard.

White House aides said they are encouraged by recent comments from Mr. Graham and other Republicans that they are willing to consider a "grand bargain" that includes tax increases, although GOP leaders have resisted any new tax revenue.

A few hours before the dinner, Mr. Coats told reporters: "My message is, 'Mr. President, we've been dealing with short-term, buy-a-little-time stuff for two years now. Isn't it time to reach some kind of big deal that puts this behind us and sets a course for the next 10 years, removes this dark cloud of uncertainty that's hanging over the economy and gives us a clear path forward?' "

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The Washington Post contributed. Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com, 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.


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