President Barack Obama was to dine Wednesday evening with about a dozen Republican members of Congress. None of his guests serve in the House.
Since early March, when Obama met with House Republicans behind closed doors for a candid question-and-answer session, the president's communication with leadership and the rank and file has been limited and perfunctory. Interviews with House Republicans on Wednesday suggested that most don’t feel as though much has changed since Obama appeared before them last month.
"With the House, all we’ve seen is him come down and provide his charming skills for the House Republican Conference one time,” Georgia Rep. Tom Price said. “So, as I said at the time, if this is just a one-time occasion, then it won’t change the dynamic at all. If it’s a serious effort to try to work together and find common ground, then we’re all in. But we haven’t seen it.”
Some do credit the White House with improved engagement, among them Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole. He told CQ Roll Call that he met with a member of Obama’s legislative affairs shop Wednesday to discuss the president’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal.
The meeting occurred at the administration’s request, Cole said. “I think they’re trying to think it through and they’re trying to figure out a way to engage,” he added.
For the most part, House GOP leaders have focused their criticism of Obama on his policies and political tactics, complaining less about the extent of his communication with their conference.
But some are more critical. Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado charged the administration with being mostly absent during the first months of the 113 th Congress. He said the House and Senate working together without the president’s interference actually helped matters. Still, Gardner clearly chafed at what he said is Obama’s weak attempt to develop a solid working relationship with House Republicans.
“I read in the paper that the president has concerts at the White House and he’s enjoying that. But I don’t know that anybody was invited to that. He had dinner with 11 or so members of the Senate. But a charm offensive? C’mon. Building relationships is more than just a couple dinners and a couple invitations to the White House.”
Gardner added: “The White House needs to lead, they ought to lead, but clearly they haven’t wanted to.”
This evening’s meal marks Obama’s second intimate dinner with a select group of Senate Republicans, in addition to his March appearance before the full Senate minority conference.
Although Obama isn’t ignoring the Republican House majority outright, his focus on establishing relationships with GOP senators appears to be a 180-degree shift in strategy from the previous Congress, when the president’s effort at negotiation — whatever Republicans thought of his intentions — was focused on forging a deal with the House GOP and Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.
But after a 112th Congress that was regularly paralyzed by disagreements between the White House and the House majority, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander said Obama might be right to switch the focus of his outreach to the minority conference on the north end of Capitol Hill. Alexander, who was invited to Wednesday evening’s dinner, said it might also benefit House Republicans not to be at the center of the storm for a change.
Alexander was among several frustrated Senate Republicans who spent the previous two years criticizing Obama for his lack of engagement and clamoring to be a part of the negotiations on major issues.
“My sense is that the president worked for awhile with the speaker and that didn’t quite work out,” Alexander said. “I think there’s a consensus among most Republicans I talk to that it’s time now for the president and the Senate to see if we can come to an agreement, and if we can, and we have substantial support from both parties, well then we can send it to the House and they can make a decision about what to do.”