Obama Hosts Hug-it-Out Dinner for Republican Senators

Snowquester be damned! Obama’s taking 11 GOP senators out to dinner tonight as part of a good-will campaign. Caitlin Dickson previews the awkward affair.

Can we be friends? That’s the apparent subtext of President Obama’s dinner invitation to a handful of Republican lawmakers Wednesday night. Included on the guest list: Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who once said Obama’s Affordable Care Act would “Sovietize” health care, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, who was rumored to have been on the short list to be Mitt Romney’s running mate.

In all, the president is hosting 11 senators at the Jefferson Hotel, about a seven-minute drive from the White House, as part of a good-will campaign in the wake of a scathing sequester and looming debt-ceiling negotiations.

Despite a history of opposing the president, some of the attendees seem open to hearing him out. “I have always said that I am willing to work with anyone who is serious about confronting our debt and deficit and who will take genuine steps to limit our out-of-control spending,” said Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who last month warned that John Boehner would “lose his speakership” if he caved to Obama on tax hikes to avoid the sequester. In an emailed statement regarding Wednesday’s dinner, Johnson said, “Hopefully this is a good faith attempt by the President to begin to work on a bipartisan plan that saves Social Security and Medicare and puts us on a path to a balanced budget.”

Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey said he was excited about tonight’s dinner and hopes to focus the discussion on economic and job growth as well as structural reforms to the country’s health-care programs. “I am happy to work with the president if he is willing to work with us,” he said.

Also slated to dine with the president in the Jefferson’s Parlor Boardroom are Bob Corker of Tennessee, North Dakota’s John Hoeven, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Dan Coats of Indiana, Arizona's John McCain, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina. Administration officials say Graham helped put together the guest list, which is a mixed bag of willing bipartisan dealmakers, harsh Obama critics and a few in-betweeners.

Noticeably absent from the guest list are Florida darling Marco Rubio and Susan Collins of Maine, a member of the Senate’s bipartisan deficit-reduction group and one of the senators the president called personally earlier this week to discuss plans for further collaboration. According to Rubio press secretary Alex Conant, the Florida senator had a good phone conversation with the president about immigration the other day and plans on seeing him at a Senate lunch next week. “We think it’s good that the president is talking with Republicans,” Conant told The Daily Beast.

Kevin Kelley, a spokesman for Susan Collins, said the senator had no hard feelings about not being invited. “Senator Collins spoke with the president on the phone Monday afternoon. She doesn’t want to get into details of their call, but Senator Collins said they had a good discussion about the need for a bipartisan agreement on several critical issues including the unsustainable, $16.6 trillion debt and sequestration,” said Kelley. “She encouraged further discussion of a substantive nature and she is pleased that he has reached out and is inviting members to the White House.”

Meanwhile, the folks at the Jefferson Hotel are busy getting ready for the highly publicized gathering. Executive chef Chris Jakubiec has prepared several meal options but the official menu won’t be decided until the president’s staff comes by the approve it later today. As for the much-hyped snowquester? Many of the senators’ Washington offices are closed in anticipation of the coming storm. “We’ve certainly been keeping an eye on the weather,” Alicia Rodriguez, the hotel’s director of marketing, told The Daily Beast. “But it doesn’t seem like they’re concerned, so we’re moving forward.”