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Obama' Congressional calls: Overtures long overdue

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WASHINGTON -- As President Barack Obama was motorcading to the Capitol on Tuesday -- the first of three visits this week to huddle with GOP and Democrat lawmakers, known here as his "charm offensive" -- I asked Sen. Susan Collins if the mixers could make a difference, what with entrenched Congressional gridlock.

"My hope is it will change the atmosphere and to make everyone work better together," the Maine Republican known for her bipartisanship told me. "The presidents' overtures are long overdue, but they are welcome nevertheless."

Obama met with Senate Democrats Tuesday in a session that featured a lot of senators asking questions -- described to me as sort of like their own news conference -- as Obama attempts to make up for lost time in forging more productive relations with Congress.

Today Obama returns to the Capitol to talk with House Republicans and on Thursday meets with House Democrats and Senate Republicans.

Why is Obama devoting all this time to wooing Congress? Last week he took a dozen GOP senators to dinner and had House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) over for lunch. Ryan, in return, served up Tuesday a proposed fiscal 2014 budget that strips funding for Obama's signature health care law.

Obama's shuttle diplomacy to the House and Senate rank and file may shut down -- or at least soften -- Republican criticism that he doesn't reach out to them.

"With regard to what a lot of you have described as the president's charm offensive, we welcome it," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters.

After Obama left, I asked Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 leader in the Senate, what he made of the presidential outreach.

"I think it is worth a try," Durbin told me. "What he is trying to do is to move them beyond, for many of them, just a knee-jerk negative reaction to him and his proposals. And I can tell you from conversations I've had with Republicans, we haven't converted them to Obama supporters, but I think they are listening, which is all you can ask for."

The Senate is run by Democrats, and face time with Obama is not an issue. Obama confronts a tougher crowd on Wednesday, since the GOP controls the House.

Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) reminded reporters on Tuesday about the rarity of Obama's personal dealings with the House GOP members. No meetings with House members in 2012 (hey, it was an election year), an invite to all House Republicans to the White House on June 1, 2011, and a speech at the House GOP retreat in Baltimore on Jan. 29, 2010.

I don't want to oversell these meetings as a cure to what ails a moribund Congress.

"Listen, one meeting, no one is going to fall in love or anything like that," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) told me.

What they may do is blunt some of the sharper critics.

King said, "It's a lot easier to quote/unquote hate someone if you don't deal with them, so you get rid of some of that attitude. Some guys can get that out of their system."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on March 13, 2013 6:33 AM.

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