President Obama is circumventing Republican leaders and reaching out directly to rank-and-file Senate GOP lawmakers in an early effort to build momentum for a grand bargain to avert sequestration and reduce the long-term deficit.
“He wants to do the big deal,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
Graham told reporters Tuesday afternoon that Obama had just called him and the two spoke for 10 minutes about fiscal issues. He said the conversation was “incredibly encouraging.”
“I’m very encouraged by what I see from the president in terms of what I see in terms of substance and tone,” Graham said. “He’s calling people — this is how you solve our problems. He’s working the phones, talking about … how can we get more people in the mix.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said Obama called her on Tuesday and the two discussed budget and fiscal issues. She also came away cautiously encouraged.
“I think the important thing is, for the first time in a very long time, the president appears to be doing some outreach to both Republicans and Democrats, and that’s long overdue,” Collins told reporters on Wednesday.
Ordinarily the president would speak directly with leadership. But as the White House sees it, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have been unwilling to begin a discussion about averting the sequester in a balanced way. The two GOP leaders have repeatedly ruled out raising any new revenue. So Obama is searching for Republicans who are willing to engage.
As part of his outreach, Obama has invited a number of Republican senators to dinner on Wednesday night at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington. Those expected to attend, according to The Associated Press, are Sens. Graham, John McCain (AZ), Kelly Ayotte (NH), Roy Blunt (MO), Pat Toomey (PA), Rob Portman (OH), Bob Corker (TN) and Ron Johnson (WI).
Graham said the broad consensus is that the deficit must be reduced by cutting long-term entitlement spending and extracting revenues by reforming the tax code to eliminate deductions.
“I just think we know what to do. We know what the big deal should be made of,” he said. “Maybe because of sequestration, and frustration with the public, the time is right to act. And what I see from the president is probably the most encouraging engagement on a big issue I’ve seen since the early years of his presidency.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.