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Did Obama's GOP dinner diplomacy pay off?
The president wined and dined a dozen Republican senators, and they emerged surprisingly optimistic about a big budget deal
Sen. John McCain gives a thumbs up as he emerges from a private dinner with President Obama on March 6.
Sen. John McCain gives a thumbs up as he emerges from a private dinner with President Obama on March 6. AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
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hile Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was transfixing Washington with his 13-hour filibuster Wednesday evening, President Obama personally treated a dozen Senate Republicans to a nice dinner at Washington's tony Plume restaurant. In a tactical shift, Obama started reaching out to rank-and-file Republicans over the past week to pursue a big deal on the federal budget, and in one of his phone calls, he asked Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) to make a guest list for last night's unusual bread-breaking. Graham and all 11 of his invited colleagues emerged from the dinner surprisingly optimistic, with every one of them describing the dinner as productive, even enjoyable, and a helpful first step toward the elusive "grand bargain."

"I think what he is really trying to do is just start a discussion and break the ice, and that was appreciated," Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said as he left the dinner. "His goal is ours — we want to stop careening from crisis to crisis and solving every problem by meeting a crisis deadline." The senators — along with Johanns and Graham—were Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Saxby Chambliss (Ga.), John Hoeven (N.D.), John McCain (Ariz.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), Richard Burr (N.C.), Dan Coats (Ind.), Ron Johnson (Wis.), and Pat Toomey (Pa.) — said talk at the dinner focused on finding common ground for a long-term fix to America's fiscal situation.

This sounds too good to be true, says Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice. "Is this a sign of the world coming to an end?" Did "Obama slip something into their drinks?" Has hell frozen over? We'll see what these Republicans say after a day of Rush Limbaugh and other conservative radio talkers "demanding no compromise, a total win, and/or branding them a bunch of RINOs," but it's sounding possible we'll actually get that grand bargain. "Hope springs eternal."

The key parts of the strategy are the personal overtures from Obama and his focusing that attention on what White House spokesman Jay Carney called a "caucus of common sense" rather than engaging with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), both of whom are opposed to any deal that includes new tax revenue. The idea is that rank-and-file Republicans, especially those in states or districts hit hard by sequestration, "may be interested in a deal that pairs cuts in entitlement programs with a tax overhaul that would include new revenue," say Rosalind S. Helderman and Philip Rucker in The Washington Post. The phone calls — to, among other Republicans, Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), and Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) — were phase one, the dinner was phase two.

Next week, Obama will make a rare visit to Capitol Hill to meet separately with the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and the Senate. There appears to be a growing desire among leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to reach an accord that has eluded them. [Washington Post]

Everything, the fancy dinner, calling Paul Ryan—" in terms of political body language — screams that [Obama] is ready to make a deal," says Chris Cillizza at The Washington Post. "Republicans now must decide if they want to take it." That's no sure thing. Republicans "clearly feel as though they have political momentum behind them at the moment," but "the high ground can shift rapidly."

"White House aides know this outreach is a long shot, but it's the best approach of all the long shots left to solve the budget impasse," says John Dickerson at Slate. And schmoozing with Senate Republicans is probably a smart move — they're "more independent and compromise-minded than their Republican House counterparts," and if Obama can get a budget deal through the Senate, there's a good chance "Boehner will be pressured into at least allowing a House vote on it," even if it passes with more support from Democrats than Republicans.

If the president is going to make a deal with Republican senators, he's going to have to create a pathway for them. That will mean he has to tone down the rhetoric, particularly on blaming Republicans for every ill that might happen as a result of the sequester. Republican senators might be open to a deal, but not if the president is painting their party as a haven for the cruel and unfeeling.... In the end, the measure of the president's willingness to work with the other side may not be whether he has them over for dinner, but whether he stops filleting them. [Slate]

"From Obama's point of view," says E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post, "engaging with Senate Republicans now to reach a broad settlement makes both practical sense, because there is a plausible chance for a deal, and political sense, because he will demonstrate how far he has been willing to go in offering cuts that Republicans say they support." But if we actually get that elusive grand bargain, it will probably be due to "one of the most basic human responses: Exhaustion."

While it's the GOP that has been using serial, self-created crises to gain political leverage, many in the party are no less worn out by them than the Democrats. "Even we are tired... of lurching from one cliff to another," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. "I think that's lending some pressure towards trying to come up with some kind of a grand bargain." [Washington Post]

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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