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Following days-long outreach, rare kudos for Obama from GOP rivals

In the final afternoon of his three-day outreach effort to Congress, President Barack Obama got a rare thumbs up from some of his top GOP rivals after a private luncheon on Capitol Hill Thursday.

“I think we all felt that it was a very good meeting,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told reporters after the luncheon that the group had a “great” discussion largely focused on reforming entitlement programs.

Dining on lobster salad and blueberry pie, Obama and Senate Republicans spoke behind closed doors before the president also paid a visit to House Democrats on the Hill.

Like the president’s meeting yesterday with House Republicans, participants said the tone of the Senate event was respectful and candid.

McConnell told reporters after the meeting that he hopes Obama will work to win the support of his own party to reform programs like Medicare.

“He certainly understands that you can’t fix the country without adjusting entitlements to fit the demographics of our country,” he said. “We’ll see where we go from here but it was a great meeting.”

According to one senior Republican senator who spoke with NBC News, Obama said, "I can't provide the cover to get entitlement reform done without revenue."

The senator called this the "overriding theme" of the meeting, adding “To get really hard things done the president has to lead. He gets that, but he gets that in the context of, 'I have to lead, but you have to give me some things that I can say were victories.'"

The senator went on, “At one moment he said, talking about things he could do better, he said, 'Hopefully I’m a better president now than the day I started. And all of us need to learn from our mistakes.’”

Freshman Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who earlier Thursday had a heated exchange with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein over the constitutionality of an assault weapons ban, also told reporters that he was “encouraged by [Obama’s] expression of willingness” to work on corporate tax reform and other economic issues.

“I’m hopeful that this conversation today was a positive step in that direction,”  Cruz said.

For his part, Kansas Republican Sen. Jerry Moran called the meeting “bland,” adding that there were “no fireworks on either side ... it was just a polite conversation with nothing unusual.” He said that corporate tax reform is one area where both sides might be able to forge an agreement.

Obama called them “good conversations,” but added, “ultimately it's a matter of the House and Senate both caucuses getting together and everybody being willing to compromise.”

The president dined last week with some of the GOP caucus, holding an intimate dinner at the swank Jefferson Hotel in Washington with a dozen Republican lawmakers, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and John McCain of Arizona.

The luncheon with Senate Republicans came as some of the president’s most vociferous conservative opponents gathered on the other side of the Potomac River for an annual confab-slash-pep-rally.

While the president and senators were behind closed doors, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul – who led a 13-hour Senate filibuster last week in protest of the administration’s policy on drones – lambasted Obama as fuzzy on civil liberties at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland.

“The message for the president is that no one person gets to decide the law,” Paul said at the beginning of his remarks. “No one person gets to decide your guilt or innocence.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to have lunch with him today,” he added  with a dollop of sarcasm, earning laughter from the conservative crowd. “Maybe he can see this later on C-SPAN.” 

NBC's Frank Thorp contributed to this report.