April 11, 2013

Collins says White House dinner talk was 'substantive'

By Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli / Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — President Obama is proving to be a popular dinner host.

Republican senators who dined Wednesday at the White House, the second time Obama has extended an invitation to his sometime adversaries, offered mostly positive reviews, saying the president’s outreach has renewed their hopes that a budget deal can be brokered later this year.

“It went hours longer than it was supposed to – it was nearly three hours in length – so that gives you some idea of how substantive it was,” Sen. Susan Collins of Maine told reporters Thursday. “If the president follows up on this rhetoric last night, then I believe that we have a real opportunity to make significant progress on a global, fiscal solution to our $16.7-trillion debt.”

“It was a great meal,” Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Georgia Republican who drew up the guest list, said on “Fox and Friends.” “Quite frankly, we did more talking than the president did. He was a good listener, and I think we covered a lot of good ground.”

Obama asked Isakson to help organize the dinner with the dozen senators after the president’s first dinner encounter last month with Republicans appeared to generate not only good will but serious dialogue on tough budget issues. The president has been criticized for not lubricating his deal-making with social engagements.

A White House official said the president “enjoyed a constructive, wide-ranging discussion with Republican senators” and “looks forward to continuing bipartisan conversations in the weeks and months ahead.”

Wednesday evening’s gathering over steak, sauteed vegetables and salads in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House came just hours after Obama unveiled his 2014 budget blueprint, which the administration portrayed as a middle road between the House Republicans’ austere budget and a more liberal proposal from Senate Democrats.

The budgets provide a framework for debate as the two sides angle toward a summer showdown over the need to raise the nation’s legal debt limit. Republicans will seek budget cuts from the administration in return for their votes to lift the debt ceiling, while Democrats prefer asking wealthier Americans to contribute more in taxes.

After the first dinner, the president was encouraged by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to meet with the rest of his GOP minority. So far, half of the Republican senators have dined with the president.

The other senators who attended Wednesday’s dinner were Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Boozman of Arkansas, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Marco Rubio of Florida, John Thune of South Dakota and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

 

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