President Obama hosted a meeting at the White House for the top leaders of both parties in the House and Senate a few weeks ago. Then Mr. Obama summoned Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) for a sit-down. The president invited House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) for a blue plate special of lentil vegetable soup, broiled sea bass and a roasted vegetable ragout. Then came a banquet with 12 GOP senators at the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Washington, DC. On Tuesday, President Obama lunched with Democratic senators in the Mike Mansfield Room of the Capitol. The president returned to the Capitol Wednesday to huddle with House Republicans. On Thursday, Maine lobster and blueberry pie was the bill of fare during a luncheon with Senate Republicans in the Capitol’s LBJ Room. And before leaving the Capitol complex, Mr. Obama headed for the auditorium in the Capitol Visitor’s Center to hear from House Democrats.
Heaven knows what Michelle Obama thinks about this grub with her “Let’s Move” initiative.
Mr. Obama’s message is also “let’s move.” As in move legislation. And after crises over possible government shutdowns, the debt ceiling and the fiscal cliff, the president is using entrees to gain entrée.
But is it getting anywhere?
Dinners and lunches to foster relationships could prove helpful – especially when President Obama and Congressional leaders face such a weird legislative dynamic which seems to stymie almost everything on Capitol Hill.
“He needs to stay directly involved with us to grind out a grand bargain,” said Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND). “As long as he continues to meet with us, then he can get it done.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) said he didn’t think Mr. Obama “plowed any new ground” during the luncheon with GOP senators. But he noted that these meetings were “to set up a process to get to an agreement on some of these issues.”
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) described the sessions as “candid” and “productive.” The Ohio Republican said he hoped these discussions could continue.
But for Boehner, a fly was definitely in the soup.
“It’s going to take more than dinner dates and phone calls,” warned Boehner. “It’s going to take the president and the Senate Democrat leadership, rolling up their sleeves, making tough choices about how we solve our nation’s problems.”
“He has no plan,” groused Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) as he raced out of Wednesday’s meeting with Mr. Obama and headed up a Capitol staircase. “On anything….”
House GOP Chief Deputy Whip Pete Roskam (R-IL) lamented the president “was clear and declarative that he will insist on new revenues.” Roskam later noted that he couldn’t blame Republicans if they weren’t willing to jump in feet first with President Obama.
“There is reluctance in our conference based on his commitment to thin our herd in the 2014 election,” Roskam said.
The Illinois Republican remarked that shortly after winning re-election last November, the president quickly placed phone calls to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) to pledge support for the midterm elections. The DCCC is the national organization devoted to electing Democrats to the House.
“The American people do not care who the president called and when,” said Israel. “It shouldn’t be earth shattering to anybody that a President of the United States, any President of the United States, would prefer to work with members of his own party who will not block him and slam the door on any compromise.”
But Roskam is onto something which is why so many Republicans fret about Mr. Obama’s motives.
“It didn’t take,” said Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE) about the president’s charm offensive.
But some others were a little more positive. One is Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI), a second-term Congressman who’s pushed for bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.
“He wanted to convince us that he was serious. And there’s nothing in there that would lead me to believe that he wasn’t,” said Ribble shortly after the meeting. “I think it’s a great first step.”
Freshman Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL) seemed buoyed by the conversation and not as skeptical as some of his veteran colleagues.
“You know, I’m only eight weeks old,” said Davis of his two months as a Congressman. “For me, this is the first time. So I have to take it as a very positive step – that the president is willing to work together with us and find some common sense solutions.”
Even Paul Ryan seemed optimistic, telling reporters President Obama “did himself some good.”
But the same problems remain.
Mr. Obama has conducted subsistence diplomacy for a few weeks now. Other than general pleasantries and the caloric intake, no one seems to have budged much – perhaps because they’re in a food coma. The political positions remain the same. Ryan marched ahead with his budget blueprint this week which Democrats universally lambasted.
House Republicans even pressed the president on the decision to cancel White House tours due to sequestration, the massive set of mandatory budget cuts which cleaved federal spending a few weeks ago.
“The Secret Service made the decision,” President Obama is said to have reiterated behind closed doors.
A source in the room says that statement was met by jeers of disbelief from Republicans.
“Now hold on guys,” the president reportedly interrupted. “We just talked about respect. It’s not something I like.”
But as soon as Mr. Obama stepped into the meeting with House Republicans Wednesday, nothing short of a so-called “grand bargain” on spending and entitlements would command much news attention. While the president was inside, white smoke belched from the flue at Sistine Chapel, signaling the election of a new pope. President Obama informed the GOPers of the news. Someone asked if the smoke meant they had restored White House tours.
When Mr. Obama left, a reporter queried the president if people should anticipate any white smoke in Washington, indicating a breakthrough in the fiscal stalemate.
“You’re straining the analogy,” President Obama said with a laugh.
Many reporters openly questioned the overall effort of the president to visit four times in three days with lawmakers.
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. If he didn’t reach out, you’d all be criticizing him for not reaching out,” sighed House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Joe Crowley (D-NY). “You know, John Lennon had a song. ‘Give Peace a Chance.’”
And that’s how Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) viewed President Obama’s campaign
“It was an effort to really build some trust. Can we dance?” Shimkus said.
But Rep. James Lankford (R-OK) is unconvinced.
“He wants to dance and he wants to lead. And if we dance, you have to dance to my music,” noted Lankford.
But Mr. Obama disagrees, putting the onus squarely on lawmakers.
“I think we’ve had good conversations,” the president said as he left the Capitol after his final meeting of the week. “Ultimately, it’s a matter of the House and Senate – both caucuses – getting together and being willing to compromise. We’ll see what we can do.”
Eating together might not trigger a budget agreement. But building relationships via the methods professed by Keith Ferrazzi in his book “Never Eat Alone” could frame trust on which to make a deal.
And after all, everyone involved in public policy in Washington knows that big pacts don’t come over lobster in the LBJ Room of the Capitol or at some posh hotel downtown. Nice meals help. But you’ll know if they’re getting serious when aides are burning the midnight oil at the Capitol and White House.
The provisions for those meetings? Cold slabs of pepperoni pie from “We, The Pizza” on Capitol Hill or overcooked popcorn from vending machines in the basement of the Cannon House Office Building.