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Uncertain dividends await sudden Washington thaw

Though its eventual dividends are uncertain, President Barack Obama’s newfound outreach to Republican lawmakers has not only prompted a glimmer of hope for a thaw in the partisan logjam in Washington, but also hinted that a breakthrough on the president’s second-term agenda priorities could be within reach.

The president has moved in recent days to sidestep Republican leaders in Congress and speak directly to members of the GOP rank-and-file. Obama called a handful of Republican senators last weekend, dined with a dozen of them on Wednesday evening and broke bread with the GOP’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee on Thursday.

Nebraska Sen. Mike Johanns, one of the senators in attendance at the dinner, proclaimed himself “more optimistic” about dealing with Obama following the dinner.

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn said Thursday on MSNBC: “The president was sincere. I think everybody believed him in terms of wanting to work together. And I think it's the beginning hopefully of the relationship building that will allow us to do that.”

The dinner was just one step by Obama over the past week to woo Republicans, who had loudly complained for weeks that the president had engaged in no genuine outreach, and rather, was spending his time to campaign actively against Republicans.

Obama also dined Thursday with Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee. And the president will make a rare trip next week to Capitol Hill, where he’ll address the House and Senate Republican conferences. (Obama will also speak to congressional Democrats.)

For now, the president’s new tack has won applause from Republicans.

"I think it's a sign – a hopeful sign – and I'm hopeful that something will come out of it," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Thursday, denying that he felt as though Obama was going around him. "But if the president continues to insist on tax hikes I don't think we're going to get very far. If the president doesn't believe we have a spending problem, I don't think we're going to get too far. But I'm optimistic."

Related: Reaching across aisle, Obama picks up tab at dinner with GOP

Obama has an aggressive second-term agenda on Congress’ docket. Comprehensive immigration reform, stronger regulations on guns and a grand fiscal bargain headline an agenda that has been largely met, to date, by stiff Republican opposition.

But after the president spent the first two months of his second term traveling across the country blasting Republicans over the sequester – which took effect last Friday – Obama has apparently decided a softer approach might get more results. Boehner called the shift in strategy a “180” by the White House.

But it was still a very open question as to whether Obama might make any more progress in winning over Republicans through this approach. Indeed, his renewed outreach might just as well have the purpose of inoculating himself against charges that he had not, in good faith, pursued every avenue to strike a deal with Republicans.

Already, some Democrats are skeptical.

“This president has been so respectful, given so much time to the Republicans and their views,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday, “to the point that at one time, in one of our meetings, I said to the president, ‘Mr. President, I'm busy, and I don't have any more time for this; you have to be the busiest person in the world.’”

Pelosi’s skepticism is rooted not only in the failed fiscal talks during the last Congress. She and other Democrats stood by in 2009 as Obama made aggressive overtures toward Republicans in hopes of winning bipartisan support for his health care reform law. Before that were the cocktail and Super Bowl parties at the very beginning of the Obama administration, with Democrats and Republicans alike as guests.

Indeed, the new apparent comity between Obama and Republicans could face a stiff test of seriousness as soon as next week, when Ryan unveils his new budget – a document that has been targeted by Democrats in the past.

“We need an open debate about how best to balance the budget and expand opportunity,” Ryan said following his meeting with Obama. “I look forward to having that debate next week with specific budget proposals from House Republicans and Senate Democrats."