Obama launches 'charm offensive' on Capitol Hill. Does it have a chance?

President Obama begins meetings with lawmakers Tuesday to discuss everything from deficits to guns. He is not known for cultivating working relationships on the Hill, and at the same time, GOP congressional leadership has been locked in opposition.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
People walk toward the US Capitol on March 4. President Obama is beginning a three-day 'charm offensive,' with back-to-back meetings on Capitol Hill with Senate Democrats (Tuesday), with House Republicans (Wednesday), and, separately, with Senate Republicans and House Democrats (Thursday).

Just as he did at the start of his first term, President Obama is heading up to Capitol Hill to make a rare, personal appeal to lawmakers, on their own turf, for an ambitious agenda.

But this time, lawmakers have a four-year record of negotiations with a president not known for cultivating working relationships on Capitol Hill. Conversely, he's encountered a GOP congressional leadership locked in opposition.

This week’s new “charm offensive” is a bid to reach below the leadership level on Capitol Hill and, if possible, change the tone of relations with Congress – or, at least, the perception of a White House that functions mainly in campaign mode.

“The president’s overtures, while they are long overdue, are certainly welcome," says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who has been a key player in many bipartisan deals in the Senate.

In 2009, just a week after his inauguration, Mr. Obama’s main talking point in back-to-back meetings with House and Senate Republicans was an economic recovery plan, which, on the eve of the meetings, House GOP leader John Boehner had urged his caucus to reject.

This week, the menu is more expansive: deficits, immigration, guns, energy, and the pace of judicial confirmations. So is the audience. It’s Senate Democrats on Tuesday, House Republicans on Wednesday, and, separately, Senate Republicans and House Democrats on Thursday.

Last Wednesday, the president invited a dozen GOP senators, none formally in party leadership, for a private dinner at Washington’s Jefferson Hotel. And last Thursday, Obama invited the top House Budget Committee leaders, chairman Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland, to lunch at the White House.

Senate Republicans met these overtures, at least publicly, with guarded optimism.

“Dinner and a lunch don’t make agreements, but there is the beginning of things, and this could be the beginning of the kinds of conversation that could lead us to a grand bargain,” says Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, one of the 12 who met with the president.

“Everybody knows we need a grand bargain, [and] I think the president’s outreach is a good beginning. It sure beats the heck out of him flying to some place and belaboring us in a campaign rally, then flying back to Washington,” he added, referring to the events Obama has held around the country since the election to promote his policy positions. "So, we appreciate it."

The reception on the GOP leadership side has been more restrained. At a press briefing last Thursday, Speaker Boehner said that after “months of campaign-style events,” the president is “actually going to try to talk to members.”

“I hope something will come out of it,” he said. "But if the president continues to insist on tax hikes, I don't think we're going to get very far. If the president doesn't believe we have a spending problem, I don't think we're going to get too far. But I'm optimistic."

With Republicans in disarray after 2012 elections, the conspicuous presidential outreach to mid-level Republicans can also be seen as a bid to further divide GOP ranks.

“People desire to be a part of a big agreement, and every time the president dangles that opportunity, even if they’re wary, they feel obligated to pursue it. That’s where we are today,” says Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama.

“The president has hinted he would be prepared to do some large things, so it makes sense to talk with him,” he adds. “I do believe the president needs to end secret talks and begin to tell the American people what he thinks is needed to fix our debt problem.”

Recent conciliatory talk and the president’s new outreach isn’t a sign that the dysfunction in Washington is over, says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and co-author of "It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism."

Succeeding in some policy areas requires, among other things, “isolating or neutralizing” opposition in the GOP-controlled House, Mr. Ornstein says. “The only way to do that is first to work assiduously with problem-solvers in the Senate and reach some broad, bipartisan agreement that will capture 70 to 80 votes or more,” he says.

“If you do that in a way that it’s visible and obvious that you have reached out and compromised,” that puts pressure on Boehner to allow the deal on the floor for a vote, he says.

“He’ll have to bring up something, which will pass with some of his own [GOP] votes and a majority of Democrats,” he adds. “That’s the way to progress.”

By law, the White House is required to produce a budget resolution by the first Monday in February. Presidents have often missed that deadline, but this time goes further: The Obama administration is not expected to release its budget for fiscal year 2014 until April, and in the meantime, lawmakers are proceeding with their own budget debates.

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