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Obama cranks up charm offensive with Ryan lunch


US President Barack Obama took his political charm offensive up another notch Thursday, welcoming Paul Ryan, the intellectual powerhouse of Republican fiscal conservatism, for lunch.

Obama and congressman Ryan, long-time antagonists who represent sharply differing visions of how to govern America, munched on lentil vegetable soup, broiled sea bass and a roasted vegetable ragu at the White House.

The meeting, also including Ryan's Democratic opposite number on the House budget committee Chris Van Hollen, ranged over deficit and budget challenges, the spur for a bitter two-year political feud between Obama and Republicans.

It came hours after Obama supped with top Republican senators at a Washington hotel in an unusual show of bipartisanship, and before he heads to Capitol Hill to meet Senate and House lawmakers next week.

New engagement between Obama and Republicans has revived hopes that a "grand bargain" may be possible to secure up to $4 trillion in deficit reduction, which may also include reforms of costly social safety net programs.

The White House said Obama was trying to take advantage of a rare moment after the latest impasse last week, which caused $85 billion in automatic spending cuts, when there is no clock ticking down to the next fiscal crisis.

"We're not naive about the challenges that we still face; they exist and there are differences," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Some observers believe that Obama's outreach is an effort to build a coalition of action in Congress for fiscal reform and his own top priorities, and may be designed to go around top Republican leaders.

House Speaker John Boehner, with whom Obama has a cool relationship after their failure to clinch a previous "grand bargain" in his first term, sardonically noted the president's tactics had done a "180" since last week.

"Now after being in office over four years, he's actually going to sit down and talk to members," Boehner said.

"I think it's a sign, a hopeful sign, and I'm hopeful that something will come out of it. But if the president continues to insist on tax hikes, I don't think we're going to get very far."

Ryan, who was vice presidential nominee for Obama's defeated Republican rival Mitt Romney in November, is regarded as the intellectual engine of fiscal conservatism in the House and writes Republican Party budget policy.

White House officials believe there is a small window to test whether a deal to rein in the budget deficit may be possible in Obama's second term.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, often a vocal Obama critic, helped organize Wednesday's dinner, which also included luminaries John McCain, Kelly Ayotte, Pat Toomey, Bob Corker and Tom Coburn.

Graham said the dinner was "productive and substantive" and expressed hope it will mark a "new, long-overdue paradigm where people in elected office actually begin talking to each other about meaningful issues."

"I shared with my colleagues there is no dishonor in trying and failing to solve big problems," he said.

"I'm ready to try to solve the serious, long-term budget problems our country faces and can accept failure as an outcome. But I cannot accept not trying."

Next week, Obama, a Democrat, will take his case directly to Capitol Hill and will speak to Republicans from the Senate minority and the majority in the House of Representatives.

Though Republicans have publicly welcomed signs of Obama's outreach, the differences between the two sides remain deep.

After securing higher tax rates for the wealthy last year, Obama wants to raise revenues through closing tax loopholes used by the rich and corporations to combine with reductions in spending to reduce the deficit.

Many Republicans however warn that they will not permit any tax increases.

The question now is whether Republicans could be persuaded to raise more revenue in a large deal encompassing reforms to entitlement social programs dear to Democrats or in a sweeping reform of the tax code.