Wednesday, March 6, 2013

GOP's Graham on Obama dinner: 'The election is over'

By Kasie Hunt and Mike Viqueira, NBC News

Lindsey Graham took the lead on the guest list. Barack Obama extended the invitations. And on Wednesday night, after weeks of gridlock, a dozen Republican senators are dining out with the president.

"We need to stop the campaign. The election is over," Graham said Wednesday. "If we never talk to each other, I know exactly what's going to happen, this country is going to fail."

So far, the Republicans who've been invited are giving Obama the benefit of the doubt -- even if they don't want to elaborate.

Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., comments on President Barack Obama's dinner invitation that he extended to a group of senators for Wednesday evening.

"I'm just looking forward to having a constructive conversation," said Bob Corker, R-Tenn., before dashing into the Senate chamber and away from prying reporters.

"I'm happy to go there and listen and provide input," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a dinner invitee who won his Senate race with considerable Tea Party backing and isn't usually on lists of moderate senators inclined to deal-making.

The idea for the sitdown came during a meeting Graham and Sen. John McCain had with Obama at the White House last week.

"How do you say no to the president of the United States who would like to have dinner with some of your colleagues? You don't," Graham said.

Related: Obama reaches out to GOP senators as Democrats seek more revenue

"When the president ask that I put together a group, I willingly -- I was honored to try to do that. Where this goes, I don't know."

Added Graham: "It is incumbent on us to reach back. When he reaches out, we need to reach back."

The plan is to spend three hours at The Jefferson, a swanky D.C. hotel that bills its main restaurant as "discreet and elegant."

Planning to break bread? Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; Dan Coats, R-Ind.; Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Mike Johanns, R-Neb.; Pat Toomey, R-Pa.; John Hoeven, R-N.D.; and Corker, Johnson, McCain and Graham.

At the top of the dinner's agenda: The possibility of a grand bargain combining entitlement reforms with lowering tax rates and closing loopholes that would head off the sequester and tackle some of the country's worst budget woes.

Both Democrats and Republicans think President Barack Obama doesn't do a good job at reaching out to members of Congress, but the White House has plans to change its current level of engagement. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

So far, negotiations between the White House and GOP leaders have led only to gridlock. Graham insisted the dinner wasn't a divide-and-conquer strategy, with the president going around Republican leaders in favor of the rank-and-file.

"I would say this is an effort by the president to talk to people who he would like to talk to who he normally doesn't talk to. I think he talks to the leadership guys a lot. This is not about replacing anybody," said Graham.

Said Sen. John Thune, a member of GOP leadership: "There have always been attempts to sort of co-opt a few people up here. But this seems to be a more general outreach.

"Instead, Republicans say it's evidence that Obama's the one taking political heat for the sequester budget cuts that went into effect last week."

I think the president sort of got on the wrong side with the sequester by going out and using the scare tactics. And I think that's kind of bit him," Thune said. "He saw a 7-point drop in his approval rating in one week, and I think a lot of it had to do with the way he handled this."

Democrats familiar with the White House's thinking said the dinner is an attempt to "bring down the temperature" between Obama and the congressional GOP.

It's also an acknowledgment that sticking in a campaign mindset in the wake of the 2012 elections hasn't helped relationships on Capitol Hill -- and the dinner is a step away from that approach.

That helps explain the political calculation coming from the White House: Sitting down with the GOP will make it harder for Republicans to argue that Obama simply isn't talking to them.Democratic leadership, meanwhile, is skeptical that the dinner will actually bear fruit.

As they see it, Republicans willing to talk about any kind of bargain -- grand, petite, or otherwise -- represent a minority faction of their party.

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