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Obama continues schmoozing with GOP

| Thursday, March 7, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Punctuated with the sounds of ringing phones and clinking china, President Obama's new legislative diplomacy has Republicans wondering what took so long.

Obama pressed ahead on Thursday with his bipartisan political outreach — eliciting a cautious welcome amid gridlock and partisanship over how to lower deficits and stabilize the nation's debt.

The president had lunch with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and the committee's top Democrat, Chris Van Hollen, at the White House.

The lunch was a day after he dined with a dozen Republican senators in what the White House said was an effort to find common ground with rank-and-file lawmakers. Few were willing to guarantee that the engagements would yield results.

Previous presidents have tried to develop relationships with members of Congress with varying degrees of success. Some of the biggest pieces of legislation — such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a Social Security deal in 1983 — required cross-party efforts by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, respectively.

“We're not naive about the challenges that we still face — they exist,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said. “And there are differences.”

Obama has negotiated directly in the past with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in hopes of finding a large deficit-reduction deal. The efforts, though, have faltered as the president pursued deals with tax increases, which Republicans oppose. Most recently, neither side worked hard to avoid $85 billion in automatic spending cuts and, instead, devolved into partisan finger-pointing over which side is more to blame.

Boehner said Obama's new approach represents a 180-degree turn.

“He is going to, after being in office now over four years, he is actually going to sit down and talk to members,” Boehner said. “I think it is a sign, a hopeful sign, and I'm hopeful that something will come out of it. But if the president continues to insist on tax hikes, I don't think we're going to get very far.”

Carney argued that Obama's new talks with congressional Republicans doesn't signal a shift as much as an attempt to seize an opportunity after automatic spending cuts kicked in last Saturday but months before another fiscal deadline looms.

In briefing reporters, Carney noticeably dialed back his criticism of Republicans and emphasized the “common ground” between the parties.

“The fact is, this should have been happening all along,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., one of the dozen Republicans who joined Obama for dinner Wednesday at a hotel near the White House.

Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, a veteran of Washington politics who got an ice-breaking call from Obama during the weekend, said he appreciates his talk with Obama but said that type of engagement should have occurred much sooner.

“He's the first president in my experience — and I've known or worked with eight — who's had almost no personal relationships here in the Senate, on either side as far as I can tell,” Alexander said.

Obama may be attempting his charm blitz later than most presidents do.

Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said that Reagan, during his first year in office, called every member of Congress.

“His congressional liaison found that that worked against him in the long run because members of Congress expected the president to call them on every issue,” Ritchie said.

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