Obama dines with Republicans in budget push

President Barack Obama met a dozen Republican senators for dinner Wednesday, in a rare break from the rancor that has driven two years of paralyzing Washington rows over taxes and spending.

Obama, hardly known for flattering and charming his political foes, sat down for more than two hours with some of his most vocal critics, at an exclusive Washington hotel a few blocks north of the White House.

The group included Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Pat Toomey, Bob Corker and Tom Coburn, congressional sources and Obama aides said. The White House also said Obama footed the bill.

News also broke that Obama, a Democrat, will take his case directly to rank-and-file lawmakers on Capitol Hill next week and will speak to Republicans from the Senate minority and the majority in the House of Representatives.

"The president asked for the opportunity to speak to the caucuses about the priorities on his legislative agenda," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a short statement revealing little of Obama's tactics.

Top Republican Senator Mitch McConnell had earlier announced that Obama would attend the Republican Party's weekly Senate policy lunch at the US Capitol for the first time since 2010, on March 14.

McConnell, the Senate Republican minority leader, expressed appreciation that Obama had accepted his "recommendation" to hear from his party's members.

"We have numerous challenges facing the country and Republicans have offered the president serious solutions to shrink Washington spending and grow the economy," McConnell said.

"And we will have an opportunity to discuss them with the president at the lunch."

Graham earlier told reporters that the president had asked him to get a group of Republicans together for dinner and that he was "honored" to help, and bemoaned the fact such events were so rare in polarized Washington.

"The fact that there is a lot of interest in a dinner between the president and a handful of Republican senators is a pretty good statement about where we're at as a nation," Graham said.

Graham and McCain have been thorns in Obama's side during the early months of his second term, combining to derail the possible nomination of US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice as secretary of state.

They have also tag-teamed on delaying other Obama national security nominations, demanding more details on how the president responded to the raid on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya last year.

But the veteran senators also met with Obama at the White House this month and could emerge as key players in the president's push to create a coalition for comprehensive immigration reform.

Obama has recently telephoned several Republicans seen as most open to dialogue on the deep ideological rift in Washington over taxes and spending, which prompted an $85 billion austerity hit known as the sequester Friday.

The blind cuts to defense and domestic spending came into force owing to a trigger mechanism set in the event that Obama and Republicans failed to come to an agreement on cutting the deficit.

Experts warn that the cuts, in force for the rest of the year, could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and shave 0.7 percent off an already tepid rate of economic growth.

Though Obama's new dialogue with Republicans may augur a change of tone, there were no signs it would lead to any imminent breakthrough.

Obama's main challenge in advancing legislation on the budget and other priorities, including gun control and immigration reform, lies with the conservative Republican caucus in the House.

And Republicans refuse to agree to new tax revenue hikes to cut the deficit, demanding instead significant cuts to government programs, while Obama insists on a "balanced" plan of closed tax loopholes and targeted spending cuts.

In another development, the House passed a stop-gap funding measure to keep the government operating through fiscal year 2013, ahead of a March 27 deadline.

The Republican-sponsored bill would shift several billion dollars to certain military operations as a way to soften the blow of the sequester.

It now heads to the Senate.