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Charm offensive wins positive preliminary reviews

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), after dinner with President Obama last night
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), after dinner with President Obama last nightAssociated Press

As promised, President Obama took 12 Senate Republicans to dinner last night -- the president reportedly paid for the evening out of his own pocket -- in the hopes that some schmoozing might ease the gridlock that has paralyzed much of Washington. By all accounts, the gathering went quite well, but there was one paragraph in one report that stood out for me. From NBC's First Read:

[O]ne senator told us that he learned, for the first time, the actual cuts that the president has put on the table. Leadership hadn't shared that list with them before.

That, my friends, is amazing.

Remember, there's been a fair amount of discussion over the last week, much of it instigated by this item from Ezra Klein, that one of the reasons Republican lawmakers have rejected President Obama's overtures on a bipartisan fiscal deal is that Republican lawmakers simply don't know what President Obama has offered as part of a bipartisan fiscal deal.

I've generally found this hard to believe -- the details of Obama's offers are hardly a secret; much of the plan has been published at the White House's website -- but the First Read report suggests there may be something to this after all. In at least this one case, a Republican senator has relied on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for information on the details of president's pitch, and he or she was surprised to learn of "the actual cuts that the president has put on the table."

We can speculate as to why McConnell refused to share these details with his own members -- and why the senator didn't proactively seek the information before last night -- but it suggests the White House's outreach strategy, predicated on circumventing the intractable GOP leadership, may have some unexpected value.

But the next step, if there is a next step, will still be incredibly difficult.

To be sure, it was a pleasant change of pace to see so many reports of Republican lawmakers enjoying their time with President Obama.

* Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.): "I think really what he is trying to do is start a discussion and kind of break the ice and that was appreciated."

* Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.): "I don't think there's any expectation that something over the next month or six weeks is going to occur. But I think it helped lay a foundation for constructive talks maybe between now and the debt ceiling. But certainly it was very useful, very sincere, very cordial and a good dinner."

* Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.): "It was a very enjoyable meeting."

Such pleasantries are rare from the president's GOP detractors, which makes the quotes a refreshing change of pace.

But there's a predictable trajectory to this process that we've seen before. I hate to sound like a cynic, but consider the usual pattern: a Republican says, "We demand President Obama support X." The White House says, "Fine, we're willing to put X on the table." At which point Republicans respond, "We no longer accept X; and now demand Obama support Y."

I'm glad the participants at last night's dinner had a good time, and if some GOP senators learned something about the president's offer they did not previously know, it was probably time well spent. But are Republicans now (or will they ever be) open to new revenue? Can they apply savings from closed tax loopholes to deficit reduction instead of more tax cuts? Will their desire for a deal outweigh their fear of a primary challenge?

Or more to the point, are they sincerely open to the possibility of compromise or will there always be a new reason to do what Republicans have done for four years: say "no"?

While we wait for that answer to come into sharper focus, the president's willingness to schmooze is apparently just getting started. Next up: lunch today with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).