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Associated Press
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., talks on his phone Wednesday after a private dinner with President Obama and Republican senators at the Jefferson Hotel.

Senators eat and meet with Obama

– Shifting course in the face of political gridlock, President Obama is making rare overtures to rank-and-file Republicans, inviting GOP senators – including Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind. – to dinner Wednesday, planning visits to Capitol Hill and working the phones with lawmakers.

Obama’s efforts are aimed at jumpstarting budget talks and rallying support for his proposals on immigration and gun control.

“I welcome the invitation to meet with the president this evening to discuss the critical challenges facing our country,” Coats said in a statement before the dinner. “This outreach is long overdue, and if the White House is serious about addressing our fiscal crisis, growing the economy and helping Americans find jobs, then it must abandon campaign tactics and focus on working with Congress.

“I hope to discuss ways both sides can work together on a credible, long-term fiscal plan, and it starts with leadership by the president and a willingness to recognize that spending is the real problem.”

The president’s new charm offensive underscores the limitations of his earlier attempts to use public pressure, rather than direct engagement, to win Republican cooperation. That strategy proved futile in recent weeks, as the White House and Congress failed to prevent $85 billion in automatic budget cuts that both sides said they wanted to avoid.

As that “sequester” has started taking effect, Obama has begun quietly calling congressional Republicans to discuss the prospects for an elusive longer-term deficit reduction deal as well as his other second-term priorities. Aides say Obama is concentrating his outreach on lawmakers with a history of bipartisan deal-making and those who have indicated some willingness to support increased tax revenue as part of a big deficit-cutting package.

In both his calls and dinner invitations, the president pointedly has skipped over Sen. Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, the GOP leaders who insist that Obama will get no further tax hikes from Capitol Hill.

Republicans have had mixed reactions to the outreach from the president, who previously has shown little appetite for personal engagement with lawmakers, often preferring to assign those efforts to his staff and Vice President Biden.

“He’s never spent any time reaching out,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who spoke with the president this week about gun legislation. “The question is, is it starting to change because there is bad poll numbers or is it because he really decided he’s going to lead and solve some of the problems of the country?”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a frequent critic of the White House on national security issues, said he was encouraged by Obama’s efforts.

“This is how you solve hard problems,” the South Carolina Republican said.

It was during a phone call with Graham this week that the president raised the prospect of a group dinner with Republican lawmakers, an Obama aide said. Graham agreed to put together a guest list.

Along with Coats, Graham and Coburn, lawmakers invited to Wednesday’s dinner were Sens. John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Pat Toomey, Bob Corker, Ron Johnson, Saxby Chambliss, John Hoeven, Richard Burr and Mike Johanns. The two-hour dinner took place on neutral territory – the Jefferson Hotel, a few blocks from the White House.

McCain, responding to a reporter’s question about how the dinner went, jokingly said “terrible,” then added that the meal went “just fine.”

Obama advisers say they’re hopeful that without the heightened pressure of an imminent fiscal deadline, the president and Republicans can have constructive conversations on a broad deficit-reduction bill that would include concessions from the GOP on tax increases and from Democrats on entitlements.

But unless Boehner and McConnell bend on taxes, prospects for a sweeping deficit deal remain dim.

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