Senate Republicans Describe Cordial, if Not Convincing, Dinner With Obama

John Boehner

President Obama threw his second dinner party of the year for Republican senators Wednesday night, but if the first such venture in March yielded a few rounds of “Kumbaya,” the second was apparently more “Hit the Road Jack.”

“It certainly promotes a relationship that’s more conducive to getting something done,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and a dinner guest at the White House. “But you also come away from it realizing how far apart we are.”

Mr. Obama’s continuing charm offensive is aimed at finding some bipartisan accord with the Senate on major deficit reduction legislation, an agreement that could isolate House Republican leaders and drive them back to the bargaining table. But the window for that so-called Grand Bargain is extremely narrow. A showdown looms this July, when Congress must raise the government’s statutory borrowing limit, and political currents will grow only stronger as the 2014 Congressional elections approach.

But at this point, even some Republicans say the president doesn’t have a bargaining partner.

“The problem is that even amongst Republicans – and Democrats also – there’s no consensus,” said Senator John Boozman, Republican of Arkansas, who also attended the White House dinner. “It depends on who you talk to in the Republican caucus Senate, or the Republican caucus House, or the Democratic caucus, House or Senate. There’s such a disparate sense of what we need to do.”

That discord has been evident for much of the week. On Wednesday, the president released his broad budget plan for fiscal 2014, which included substantial changes to Medicare and Medicaid, as well as a new way of calculating inflation that would slow down the growth of many government benefits, including Social Security. Those proposals were supposed to be an overture to Republican leaders, who have been loudly demanding presidential leadership to slow the growth of entitlement programs.

While most Republican leaders dismissed the proposals as far too tepid, Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, who is chairman of the committee charged with electing House Republicans, called it “a shocking attack on seniors.”

The House speaker, John A. Boehner, told reporters Thursday that he disagreed with Mr. Walden’s assessment, and that the two “had a conversation about it.”

The Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee, added Mr. Walden on Thursday to a list of Republicans the group hopes to challenge with a more conservative Republican next year.

Mr. Boozman said the president and the senators met for several hours Wednesday in casual conversation that was “almost like sitting around a cafe table.” Some senators started fairly uptight, “just because of the power of the office,” he said, but Mr. Obama “was very, very relaxed with this group.”

The meal “was very tasty,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee.

That didn’t mean Mr. Obama broke through, however.

“Honestly, we have strong disagreements based on the budget and economics,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. “We have a difference of opinion on the role of government, but it was respectful, honest and open.”

But, he added, “I don’t think any minds were changed.”

“It’s fine that people talk,” Mr. Rubio said, shrugging. “You’re not going to change anybody’s principles.”

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