Can Lunches and Dinners Break the Corrosive Fiscal-Cliff Cycle?

Jill Lawrence

It’s White House rush season on Capitol Hill as President Obama tries to recruit Republicans to his cause of ending the fiscal-cliff madness. He’s resorting to dinners and lunches with GOP lawmakers only after trying just about everything else – the bully pulpit, press-conference lectures, campaign-style events, an actual campaign, and periodic negotiations with Republican leaders.

All that has yielded is fiscal brinkmanship, political gamesmanship, and constant calculations about which side got taken in the last round and which has the weaker hand going into the next. It’s a profoundly depressing cycle that’s almost driven me to writing an irregular feature about good things happening in Washington. If I could find enough of them.

Obama's Wednesday night dinner with a dozen GOP senators, along with Rep. Paul Ryan’s White House lunch on Thursday and the president's visit next week to the Republican Senate lunch, would certainly qualify for that list of good things. But, still, they are only gestures at a time when we have been waiting far too long for results.

In retrospect, it was unrealistic to expect House Speaker John Boehner to broker a deal he could actually sell to dozens of House Republicans elected in districts tailored to ensure they don’t have to worry about pleasing moderates or Democrats. Going forward, it is also unrealistic to count on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to extend the hand of friendship and compromise to Obama. As he gears up for a reelection campaign next year in Kentucky, McConnell is doing everything he can to head off a tea-party challenge in the Republican primary. Two recent polls show him to be highly unpopular and potentially vulnerable. An internal McConnell poll painted a rosier picture, but not by much.

If talks with leaders have gotten Obama nowhere, the same is true of his forays to the hustings. Aiming to ratchet up pressure on lawmakers by firing up the public is not exactly a direct route between problem and solution. The problem – soaring debt – is complicated and so are American attitudes about how to fix it. The trips also drew Republican complaints about Obama’s permanent campaign, though most presidents engage in this type of public show, to draw energy from friendly crowds as much as anything else.

A more serious problem with the campaign-style strategy seems to be that until Obama says something directly to a Republican, it apparently hasn’t been said. This became apparent in a much-discussed account by The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, who found that “one of the most respected Republicans in Congress” was unaware of Obama’s standing offers to trim Social Security cost-of-living adjustments and charge the wealthy more for Medicare.

After Obama’s Hill offensive, there should no longer be any doubt about what he’s willing to contribute to a grand bargain on taxes and spending. Whether rank-and-file Republicans will take yes for an answer on those issues and do their part by offering to close tax loopholes is another question. Will they have enough trust in him to move forward?

There hasn’t been any love lost between Obama and congressional Republicans up to this point. But fiscal-cliff fatigue may now be overtaking that dynamic, and that is an encouraging sign. Obama’s overtures may seem belated, but it may also be that the timing is just right. After the 2012 rout of their party, some GOP lawmakers want to demonstrate that Republicans are constructive and capable of governing. A fiscal deal that sets the country on course for long-term debt reduction would go a long way toward easing political tensions in Washington and economic stress everywhere else.  And then they can all move on. There’s a European trade deal waiting to be negotiated.