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Reaching across aisle, Obama picks up tab at dinner with GOP

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Sens. Ron Johnson, Tom Coburn, Richard Burr and Saxby Chambliss leave The Jefferson after a dinner with President Barack Obama on March 6, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Senators emerging from dinner with President Obama at The Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C, Wednesday night described the sit-down as a positive conversation focused largely on building more productive ways to solve the country's fiscal problems.

"I am more optimistic, just from a personal standpoint. It's just, you know, having been in the group of eight, it's tough sledding. It's just very tough sledding," said Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. "These are very difficult issues but I do think there's a real fatigue in just going from crisis to crisis. But tonight was a good first step. A good step."

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the senators and the president discussed the upcoming fiscal fights over funding the government, writing a budget and the wrangling over the debt ceiling. Hoeven said there is "an opportunity" to use the debt ceiling fight to solve the county's long term entitlement problems.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said the conversation was "wide ranging" but when asked, wouldn't say if they discussed immigration or gun control.

"We had a wide ranging discussion about fiscal and other issues. I think it was a constructive discussion," he said.

President Obama hosts several Republicans for dinner to ease sequester tensions. NBC's Tracie Potts reports.

Sen. John McCain stayed largely mum: "All I can say is we had an evening that I really appreciated very much."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, the dinner organizer, left about 20 minutes before the other attendees and the president departed the hotel.

A senior administration official later said, "The president greatly enjoyed the dinner and had a good exchange of ideas with the senators."

As for who paid for dinner, several senators said they had no idea. Initially, Hoeven said several people split the check; later, his office clarified that while Sen. Saxby Chambliss had offered to pay, the president picked up the tab.

Prior to the meeting, the Republicans who were invited gave Obama the benefit of the doubt -- even if they didn't want to elaborate.

"I'm just looking forward to having a constructive conversation," said Bob Corker, R-Tenn., before dashing into the Senate chamber and away from prying reporters.

"I'm happy to go there and listen and provide input," said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., a dinner invitee who won his Senate race with considerable Tea Party backing and isn't usually on lists of moderate senators inclined to deal-making.

As he walked out of The Jefferson, a swanky D.C. hotel that bills its main restaurant as "discreet and elegant," McCain told reporters the meeting was "just fine," and flashed a thumb-up. Moments later, senators Tom Coburn, Chambliss and Kelly Ayotte were seen exiting.

The idea for the sit-down came during a meeting Graham and McCain had with Obama at the White House last week.

"How do you say no to the president of the United States who would like to have dinner with some of your colleagues? You don't," Graham said.

Related: Obama reaches out to GOP senators as Democrats seek more revenue 

"When the president asked that I put together a group, I willingly -- I was honored to try to do that. Where this goes, I don't know."

Added Graham: "It is incumbent on us to reach back. When he reaches out, we need to reach back."

At the top of the dinner's agenda was the possibility of a grand bargain combining entitlement reforms with lowering tax rates and closing loopholes that would head off the sequester and tackle some of the country's worst budget woes.

So far, negotiations between the White House and GOP leaders have led only to gridlock. Graham insisted the dinner wasn't a divide-and-conquer strategy, with the president going around Republican leaders in favor of the rank-and-file.

"I would say this is an effort by the president to talk to people who he would like to talk to who he normally doesn't talk to. I think he talks to the leadership guys a lot. This is not about replacing anybody," said Graham.

Said Sen. John Thune, a member of GOP leadership: "There have always been attempts to sort of co-opt a few people up here. But this seems to be a more general outreach.

"Instead, Republicans say it's evidence that Obama's the one taking political heat for the sequester budget cuts that went into effect last week."

I think the president sort of got on the wrong side with the sequester by going out and using the scare tactics. And I think that's kind of bit him," Thune said. "He saw a 7-point drop in his approval rating in one week, and I think a lot of it had to do with the way he handled this."

Democrats familiar with the White House's thinking said the dinner was an attempt to "bring down the temperature" between Obama and the congressional GOP.


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