WASHINGTON » Enveloped by political gridlock, President Barack Obama is reaching out to rank-and-file Republicans, meeting for dinner with GOP senators tonight and then visiting Capitol Hill next week for separate meetings with Senate and House Republicans.
The lawmakers scheduled to attend today’s dinner are Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, Pat Toomey, Bob Corker, Ron Johnson, Saxby Chambliss, Tom Coburn, John Hoeven, Dan Coats, Richard Burr and Mike Johanns.
Obama raised the idea of a dinner during a phone conversation with Graham earlier this week and asked the South Carolina senator to put together the guest list, a White House official said.
Obama and the lawmakers planned to meet on neutral territory, with dinner scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at a hotel near the White House. With a snow storm barreling down on the Washington region, the White House said the dinner could be postponed if the weather deteriorated throughout the day.
The dinner will be followed up by a rare trip by Obama to Capitol Hill. He’ll meet there with Senate Republicans next Thursday and hold a separate meeting with House Republicans, although a date for that meeting is yet to be scheduled. The president will also meet next week with Senate and House Democrats.
Obama’s Republican outreach follows Washington’s failure to reach a deal to avert the $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that started going into effect Friday. The new GOP charm offensive also underscores the limitations of the president’s previous strategy, which centered on using public pressure to win Republican cooperation, not negotiations with lawmakers.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the president requested the meeting through his chief of staff. McConnell’s office said the president last attended the Senate GOP’s policy lunch in May 2010.
"We have numerous challenges facing the country and Republicans have offered the president serious solutions to shrink Washington spending and grow the economy," McConnell said in a statement. "And we will have an opportunity to discuss them with the president at the lunch."
House Speaker John Boehner’s office said today that the president had also requested the meeting next week with House Republicans. The White House and Boehner’s office were working to schedule that meeting, the speaker’s office said.
McConnell, Boehner and other members of GOP leadership are tellingly being left out of the dinner Obama will host today. They also didn’t make the list of Republican lawmakers Obama started calling over the weekend. Several of the senators attending the dinner also received calls from the president.
"This is how you solve hard problems," Graham said of Obama’s outreach. "We’re talking about following up on that, how we can get more people in the mix, so what I see from the president is incredibly encouraging."
White House aides say the president’s calls with Republicans focus in part on jumpstarting broader budget talks, but also onObama’s proposals for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws and enacting stricter gun control measures.
"He is reaching out and talking to members about a variety of issues — not just our fiscal challenges, but certainly the fiscal issues are among the issues he is talking about with lawmakers," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.
Associated Press reporters Dave Espo, Erica Werner and Alan Fram contributed to this report.