President Barack Obama picked up the tab for a March 6 dinner with 12 Republican senators, winning himself some very cheap publicity for his new legislative strategy of outreach to swing-voting GOP lawmakers.
Senators leaving the event were complimentary about Obama’s statements and responses to their views, despite the deep ideological differences over spending, guns, families and immigration.
The invited Senators were picked by Obama and by Sen. Lindsey Graham, the high-profile Republican senator from South Carolina.
“I’m assuming the president wants to talk seriously about the issues of the day,” Graham told reporters prior to the dinner. “I’m encouraged by the president’s outreach [and] I hope it bears fruit,” he said, after telling reporters that the president had called him and Sen. John McCain “a few weeks ago.”
White House officials tell reporters they hope to make progress in Congress by splitting a few swing-voting GOP Senators away from the GOP Senate caucus, which is led by Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell.
A top goal for the president is to replace half of the automatic 10-year, $1.2 trillion spending cuts known as sequestration with a plan that would include tax increases. Obama also wants to pass immigration reform, which is being pushed by Graham and McCain.
Those goals aren’t easy, because Obama’s ambitious, government-expanding goals have tended to unify the GOP’s 45 Senators in opposition.
The GOP unity is backstopped by the Senators’ concern over the influence of tea party activists, who deposed several swing-voting GOP Senators and hopefuls after 2009.
So far, the GOP bloc has stopped Obama’s bills, and recently boycotted the last-minute, crisis talks that Obama has offered to stop the popular sequester cuts.
But if Obama can persuade roughly seven of the 12 GOP Senators to support each of his bills, he can bypass McConnell, overcome the Senate’s 60-vote hurdle and send his progressive bills — accompanied by allied activists and lobbyists — over to the Republican-run House.
Obama is also using the media coverage of his outreach strategy to buttress his poll ratings, which will impact his ability to help win a Democratic majority in the House during the 2014 mid-term elections.
Next week, Obama is expected to make two high-profile, midday visits to Capitol Hill to meet with the House and Senate GOP caucuses.
The March 7 dinner was leaked via The New York Times to the media.
“The dinner was supposed to be quiet,” Graham told reporters during an afternoon press conference.
But Graham is also raising his media profile by backing several Obama-pushed projects, including new curbs on guns, a tax increase and the immigration reform that could bring at least 11 million low-skill illegal immigrants — and eventually, their relatives —into the country.
On March 7, Graham introduced a new bill that would allow the federal government to deny gun-purchases by people deemed by courts or psychiatrists as insane or mentally ill.
He’s simultaneously playing a visible role in defending some gun rights, and criticizing some of Obama’s appointees.
Graham faces a reelection campaign in 2014. His website did not offer any comment about the dinner.
Obama and Graham did not invite any of the GOP’s leaders to the dinner.
The invited Senators included Lindsey’s log-time ally, McCain, who showed reporters a thumbs-up as he left the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.
Also invited were New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, and Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss.
Several Tea Party-based fiscal hawks also were invited. They included Sen. Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, Sen. Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn.
The dinner also included Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns, and North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is working with Graham on the immigration bill, did not attend the dinner.
A White House official told reporters afterwards that “the President greatly enjoyed the dinner and had a good exchange of ideas with the Senators.”