Hopes, Maybe Misguided, That Food Will Breed Productivity in Capital

John Boehner

So for more than two hours on Wednesday night, a dozen senators and the president gathered on neutral territory — a private dining room at one of this city’s most elegant hotels — and tried to work out their frustrations over beef and wine.

Aside from the issue of how to handle the check, what was described by all as a convivial dinner raised difficult questions about how effective the new White House campaign to woo Republicans will be and whether Mr. Obama, even at his most contrite and conciliatory, can bridge the gap between two parties that remain deeply divided over fundamental questions of policy and the role of government.

Lawmakers in both parties say the president’s efforts may make him a few new friends, but he is not going to change ideologies. Others privately complained that convening such a high-profile meeting seemed like an effort to distract from his failure to help forge a solution to avert the automatic budget cuts that went into effect last week.

Asked Thursday morning about the president’s new social schedule, Speaker John A. Boehner chuckled before saying he hoped the talks would produce real compromise.

“After being in office four years, he’s actually going to sit down and talk to members,” Mr. Boehner said, his voice rising in feigned disbelief. Still, he added in a more serious tone, “I think it’s a sign, a hopeful sign. And I’m hopeful that something will come out of it. But if the president continues to insist on tax hikes, I don’t think we can get very far.”

Those who have studied the relationship between presidents and Congress doubt seriously whether Mr. Obama’s latest outreach will yield much.

“It’s a rather shallow notion,” said George Edwards, a political scientist at Texas A M University and an expert who has written extensively on presidential power. “You’re not going to get committed conservatives to change their long-held ideological commitments because you play a round of golf or invite them to the White House.”

Or treat them to an expensive dinner, for that matter, experts said. The senators, as is their custom, did most of the talking on Wednesday night. They were grateful to Mr. Obama for the invitation, though they told him they wished he had reached out earlier, instead of first going on a campaign-style cross-country tour accusing Republicans of obstruction.

Mr. Obama’s tone was amenable, and he kept his comments brief. “I don’t think he came there to say, ‘Here’s the way it’s going to be, and I need you to get in line,’ ” said Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who estimated that Mr. Obama spoke only about 10 percent of the time. “I think he was saying the opposite.”

They urged him to talk tougher on the need to bring down the cost of programs like Medicare. “You are in the bully pulpit,” Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said he told the president. “You can be honest with the American people and lay those facts on the table because that is what it’s going to take.”

Around 8:30 p.m., Senator John McCain of Arizona, the self-appointed timekeeper, interrupted to say that they had exhausted their time and should let Mr. Obama be on his way. “The president’s a busy guy,” he said.

And with that, they went their separate ways into the cold, damp Washington night.

Next week Mr. Obama will take the extraordinary step of traveling to Capitol Hill to hold four separate meetings with members of Congress — one with Democrats and one with Republicans in each chamber. The last time he visited the Capitol to meet with the House Republican conference was January 2009; with Senate Republicans it was May 2010, though the president has met with them on occasion since. And on Thursday, Mr. Obama hosted a lunch at the White House that included Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman.

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