Republicans, while skeptical, welcome Obama outreach

Sunday, March 10, 2013 - 2:33pm

Whatever you choose to call it -- a charm offensive, an olive branch or just dinner -- President Barack Obama's outreach to congressional Republicans is certainly a change of pace.

And on Sunday, those Republicans seemed guardedly optimistic the new approach from the White House could work, though they were quick to acknowledge that no amount of broiled sea bass could produce the kind of compromise that's eluded the two sides since Republicans took control of the House in 2010.

"This is the first time I've ever had a conversation with the president lasting more than, say, two minutes or televised exchanges," said Rep. Paul Ryan, who sat down to that broiled sea bass with Obama at the White House on Thursday.

"Will he sincerely change and try and find common ground, try and work with Republicans to get something done? That's what we hope happens," Ryan continued on "Fox News Sunday," sounding skeptical that Obama's motives in extending the lunch invitation weren't purely political.

That was the same tone adopted by House GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy, who suggested on CNN's "State of the Union" that Obama's newfound desire to meet rank-and-file Republican lawmakers may be more about politics than pact-making.

"I believe anytime both parties are talking it's a good thing. This should have happened four years ago," McCarthy told CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley. "I'm glad it's happening now. But is this about politics, or is this genuine? Only time will tell."

Obama's new strategy began over dinner Wednesday with a dozen GOP senators, who could order sea bass or filet mignon. It's different from his negotiating tactics of the past when he dealt almost exclusively with House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate. He's long been urged to nurture better relationships with rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties, but has resisted by saying no amount of glad-handing could forge compromise with rivals he labeled as intransigent.

That was the argument Rep. Nancy Pelosi used Sunday when explaining why Obama hadn't tried reaching out to Republicans until now.

"It is not why we haven't had progress before," the House Democratic leader said on CNN. "We haven't had progress before because the Republicans were committed to blocking the initiatives of President Barack Obama."

But with another looming budget deadline -- the expiration on March 27 of the measure funding the federal government -- Obama has quickly ramped up his efforts to meet GOP lawmakers. He'll be on Capitol Hill three days this week meeting with the full Republican and Democratic caucuses in both the House and Senate.

Aside from the major budget arguments that led to automatic spending cuts taking effect March 1, Obama will need Congress to approve major pieces of legislation he's identified as priorities of his second term, including comprehensive immigration reform and laws aimed at stopping gun violence.

Some Republicans, including Ryan and McCarthy, voiced concern that Obama's new approach was simply a way to curry favor with voters, who could punish House Republicans during the 2014 midterm elections for refusing to compromise. Republicans have long been critical of Obama's trips around the country promoting his policy agenda (another of which will happen this week when he heads to Illinois to talk energy).

"Will he resume the campaign mode? Will he resume attacking Republicans and impugning our motives? Will he resume what is long believed to be a plan to win the 2014 elections?" Ryan wondered Sunday.

McCarthy questioned whether the recent outreach was "about winning the House or is this about governing for all of America?"

One Republican was less skeptical. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who was one of the 12 Republicans who dined with Obama on Wednesday, called Obama "tremendously sincere" in his courting of GOP elected officials.

"I don't think this is just a political change in tactic," Coburn said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

He continued, "I think he would actually like to solve the problems of the country, and it would be to his benefit and certainly every American's benefit if he did that. It's time to start leading, and the way you do that is quit poking your fingers in people's eyes and start building relationships, and I think he's got a great chance to accomplish a big deal."

In Obama's words, the new ice-breaking campaign is meant to "untangle some of the gridlock," as he described in his weekly address Saturday.

He explained further at Saturday night's white-tie dinner for the Gridiron Club, where the president joined lawmakers and media bigwigs to dine on -- what else -- sea bass.

"I'm ... doing what I can to smooth things over with Republicans in Congress," Obama said. "In fact, these days John McCain and I are spending so much time together that he told me we were becoming friends."

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