By ROSALIND S. HELDERMAN and PHILIP RUCKER The Washington Post
Washington - The House took its first step to avert a government shutdown on Wednesday as President Obama began a series of rare meetings with Republican lawmakers, reviving chances for a long-term deal to reduce the deficit.
Washington is looking to forgo forcing a fiscal crisis this month, as the House approved a six-month spending bill that would fund the government through the end of the current fiscal year. The measure passed 267 to 151, with most Republicans supporting it and most Democrats voting against it.
The stopgap measure provides $982 billion, enough to keep federal agencies humming past March 27, when the mechanism currently funding the government expires. But it would lock in the across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester for the rest of the fiscal year.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Democrats are likely to seek amendments to help blunt the impacts of the domestic spending cuts that began last week. But there is bipartisan optimism that a final version of the bill will clear Congress by the end of the month.
With a government shutdown now unlikely, Obama is turning his focus to a new round of talks that the White House hopes could break Washington's fiscal impasse. After more than two years of negotiations with Republican leaders failed to achieve a "grand bargain," Obama is courting rank-and-file Republicans he believes might be interested in a deal pairing cuts to entitlement programs with a tax overhaul that would include new revenues.
The president invited a group of GOP senators to dinner Wednesday at a neutral, and tony, location: the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Washington. Aides said his focus would be fiscal issues, but that the president also would discuss such priorities as immigration reform and gun control.
Next week, Obama will make a rare trek to Capitol Hill to meet separately with the Democratic and Republican caucuses in both the House and Senate.
There appears to be a growing appetite among leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to strike an accord that has eluded them throughout Obama's presidency.
A few hours before dining with Obama, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., told reporters: "My message is, 'Mr. President, we've been dealing with short-term, buy-a-little-time stuff for two years now. Isn't it time to reach some kind of big deal that puts this behind us and sets a course for the next 10 years, removes this dark cloud of uncertainty that's hanging over the economy and gives us a clear path forward?'"
Obama's new charm offensive marks a departure from his recent, more combative negotiating style. Since winning re-election last November, he has pursued an outside strategy of rallying the public to ratchet up pressure on lawmakers to back his proposals.
Now, however, with across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester taking hold, White House aides said Obama sees an opportunity for productive discussions with Republicans over how to replace the sequester with a more thoughtful and less painful deficit-reduction plan.
Aides say Obama accepts that the sequester cuts are here to stay, for the moment at least. But he wants to replace them quickly with a deal that includes overhauling entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security in exchange for raising $600 billion in new revenue by revamping the tax code.
Entitlements were shielded from the sequester, which was designed to hit year after year for the next decade and total $1.2 trillion in cuts. If it continues, domestic and military programs would continue to be hit particularly hard.
White House aides said they are encouraged by recent comments from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and other Republicans that they are willing to consider a "grand bargain" that includes tax increases, although GOP leaders have resisted any new tax revenue.
The first step toward a broader discussion was ensuring that no major showdown occurs this month over simply keeping the government operating.
The measure passed by the House on Wednesday would provide new flexibility to the Pentagon to manage the sequester's deep spending cuts, but otherwise would leave the reductions in place for the year.
House Democrats pushed to be allowed to vote on an alternative that would replace the sequester with a mixture of higher taxes and different spending cuts.
To register their unhappiness with allowing sequestration to remain in place, 137 Democrats voted against the bill, authored by GOP leadership. Fifty-three Democrats joined 214 Republicans in voting for it. Fourteen members did not vote.
"This has an impact right at the kitchen table for the American people," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who voted no.
Next, the House and Senate will both put forward competing - and, likely, starkly different - budget plans that will lay out spending and taxing priorities for years to come.
Obama's new outreach is a strategy for avoiding another crisis in the summer, when the nation again bumps up a federal borrowing limit. Instead of initiating negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Obama is sidestepping GOP leadership and approaching Republicans one by one.
Obama's Wednesday night dinner included Sens. John McCain, (Ariz.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Ronald H. Johnson (Wis.), Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), John Hoeven (N.D.) and Tom Coburn (Okla.), as well as Coats and Graham.
Obama has placed calls in recent days to other lawmakers as well, including Sens. Rob Portman (Ohio) and Susan Collins (Maine) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.).
For years, lawmakers in both parties have complained openly that Obama was too insular; he acknowledged in January that "personal relationships are important, and obviously I can always do a better job."
Former Senate majority leader Thomas Daschle, a Democrat close to Obama, said, "There is no substitute for personal engagement. It creates avenues of communication that lead to opportunities for cooperation. And when that happens, one builds trust and deals get done."
Johnson, who was elected in 2010 on a tea party wave, said Wednesday's dinner would be his first chance to have an extended conversation with the president.
"We have to start seriously looking at Social Security and Medicare, these programs that simply aren't going to be around if we don't work to restructure them," Johnson told reporters. "Hopefully he realizes how serious these problems are."
Other Republicans sounded almost giddy at the prospect of dining with Obama. McCain, Obama's 2008 opponent and one of his harshest critics, joked that he had made arrangements to trek through the snow that had been expected.
"I have a dog sled ready to go," McCain told reporters.
Said Coburn: "If they'll feed me, I'm looking forward to it."
Collins lamented that she did not get an invitation. "It must have been something I said in the conversation with the president," she joked, referencing her recent call.
But Collins noted that she had selected the menu for Obama's lunch next week with all Senate Republicans: Maine lobster, Aroostook County potato chips and blueberry pie.
Washington Post staff writers Ed O'Keefe and Karen Tumulty contributed to this report.