(CNN) – President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans have set a series of meetings in the coming week, a move toward direct talks with rank-and-file lawmakers that he’s largely avoided in the budget feuds of the last several months.
The president invited a group of Republican senators to dinner Wednesday evening at a hotel within blocks of the White House, and has requested to attend meetings with both House and Senate Republicans next week.
The list of invitees to Wednesday’s dinner, provided to CNN by a GOP source, includes some of the president’s harshest critics: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Bob Corker of Tennessee, 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, Pat Toomey Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and John Hoeven of North Dakota.
While the president has met relatively frequently with members of the Republican leadership in the House and Senate during various budget impasses over the last months, he hasn’t regularly met with rank-and-file Republicans. Aside from hammering out a compromise on reducing the federal deficit, lawmakers are weighing major immigration reform measures and gun control policies, which Obama characterized as priorities of his second term during his inauguration address.
“We need to have this dialogue,” McCain said Wednesday when asked about the dinner. “I’m glad the president is doing it, I think it’s very helpful we have continued discussions.”
Graham, an ally of McCain’s who’s been a harsh critic of Obama, added “It is incumbent upon us to reach back. When he reaches out we’ve got to reach back.”
While it was the president’s idea to have dinner with Senate Republicans Wednesday night, he’s not the one who put the list together, a White House official said.
This is part of a “continuing effort to reach out to Republican lawmakers” and the president in recent meetings and phone calls has been targeting “people who have expressed interest in compromise,” the official added. Although the official noted that’s not to say that everyone attending the dinner has signed on to all the president’s ideas.
The dinner table conversation will primarily focus on fiscal matters, though the official said that other recent interactions with Republican lawmakers have included discussions on guns, immigration and energy.
The White House hopes this new outreach will lead to a grand bargainor a petite bargain, but the official said that they are “not naïve about the possibilities here.”
“These are just conversations,” the official continued. “Getting from there to a deal is hard.”
Asked if this strategy is a shift from last week–when the White House had little communication with congressional lawmakers–the official said that it’s a “change in approach” because the situation has changed. In other words, “we don’t have a looming deadline,” the official added.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday the president would attend the GOP weekly lunch meeting next Tuesday, the first time since May 2010 that Obama has attended a Republican policy lunch on Capitol Hill.
“Senate Republicans welcome the President to the Capitol,” McConnell said in a statement. “And I appreciate he took my recommendation to hear from all of my members.”
The White House confirmed Wednesday that Obama will also travel to Capitol Hill to meet separately with the House Republican conference, as well as Democrats from both chambers next week. A GOP aide said Obama previously met with the GOP conference in 2010 during a retreat in Baltimore.
The meetings come after a series of phone calls from Obama to Congressional leaders, made as the automatic across-the-board spending cuts took effect last weekend.
White House economic adviser Gene Sperling told CNN’s Candy Crowley the president was trying to find the “bipartisan compromise that we need to get out of this.”
“He’s reaching out to Democrats who understand we have to make serious progress on long-term entitlement reform, and Republicans who realize if we have that type of entitlement reform, they’d be willing to have tax reform that raises revenues to lower the deficit,” Sperling said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Republican Sens. Bob Corker and Rob Portman both said they received calls. ““I did think the conversation we had Saturday was constructive,” Corker said, adding he sensed “a window of opportunity” for negotiations with the president.
Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican, also said she spoke with Obama on Monday.
“I think the important thing is for the first time in a very long time, the president appears to be doing some outreach to both Republicans and Democrats and that’s long overdue,” she told reporters.
The latest moves reflect a shift for the president, who has been criticized for not reaching out enough to members of Congress socially in a bid to build more personal relationships.
At a White House press conference in January, Obama pushed back on the charges, saying that “most people who know me know I’m a pretty friendly guy.”
“I like a good party,” he continued. “And the truth is when I was in the Senate, I had great relationships over there, and up until that point that I became president this was not an accusation that you heard very frequently.”
He also said some Republicans seemed wary of socializing with a Democratic president.
The president has previously said he prefers to spend as much time as possible during the evenings with his daughters to help preserve family time, including in an interview in August with Jessica Yellin, CNN’s chief White House correspondent.
“Sometimes Michelle and I not doing the circuit and going out to dinners with folks is perceived as us being cool. It actually really has more with us being parents,” he said.
A preview of upcoming meetings between Obama and Republican lawmakers came last week when the president sat down with Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain to discuss pending immigration reform measures.
Graham, who has opposed Obama on topics ranging from national security to budgets, said it was “one of the best meetings I’ve ever had with the president.”
“I was quite frankly encouraged,” Graham told CNN. “I think we’ll have presidential leadership in a very productive way on immigration reform.
McCain, Obama’s rival in the 2008 presidential contest, said the immigration meeting was “excellent.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Dana Bash, Dan Lothian, Rachel Streitfeld, Kevin Bohn, Kevin Liptak, Ashley Killough and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.
October 21, 2014 //
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