Obama to sup with Republicans in budget push

WASHINGTON (AFP) - President Barack Obama will meet rival Republican senators for a rare dinner on Wednesday, as he tries to end an ugly budget stalemate holding growth hostage and clouding his second term.

Mr Obama, hardly known for flattering and charming his political foes, will sit down with a group of senior Republican lawmakers, including some of his most vocal critics, at the Jefferson Hotel, a few blocks north of the White House.

News also broke on Wednesday that Democrat Obama will take his case direct to rank-and-file lawmakers on Capitol Hill next week and will speak to Republicans from the Senate minority and the majority in the House of Representatives.

"The President asked for the opportunity to speak to the caucuses about the priorities on his legislative agenda," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, revealing little of Mr Obama's tactics, in a short statement.

Top Republican Senator Mitch McConnell had earlier announced that Mr Obama would attend the Republican Party's weekly Senate policy lunch at the US Capitol for the first time since 2010 on Thursday, March 14.

Mr McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, expressed appreciation that Mr Obama had accepted his "recommendation" to hear from his party's members.

"We have numerous challenges facing the country and Republicans have offered the president serious solutions to shrink Washington spending and grow the economy," Mr McConnell said.

"And we will have an opportunity to discuss them with the president at the lunch." The dinner group on Wednesday was expected to include Republican veterans like John McCain, who lost the 2008 election to Mr Obama, and senators Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte and Tom Coburn.

Mr Graham told reporters that the president had asked him to get a group of Republicans together for dinner and that he was "honoured" to help, and bemoaned the fact such events were so rare in polarised Washington.

"The fact that there is a lot of interest in a dinner between the president and a handful of Republican senators is a pretty good statement about where we're at as a nation," Mr Graham said.

Mr Graham and Mr McCain have been a thorn in Mr Obama's side during the early months of his second term, combining to derail the possible nomination of UN ambassador Susan Rice as secretary of state.

They have also tag-teamed on delaying other Obama national security nominations, demanding more details on how the president responded to the raid on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya last year.

But the veteran senators also met Mr Obama at the White House this month and could emerge as key players in the president's push to create a coalition for comprehensive immigration reform.

Mr Obama has recently telephoned several Republicans seen as most open to dialogue on the deep ideological rift in Washington over taxes and spending, which prompted an US$85 billion (S$106.1 billion) austerity hit known as the sequester last Friday.

The blind cuts to defence and domestic spending came into force owing to a trigger mechanism set in the event that Obama and Republicans failed to come to an agreement on cutting the deficit.

Experts warn the cuts, in force for the rest of the year, could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and shave 0.7 per cent off an already tepid rate of economic growth.

Though Mr Obama's dialogue with Republicans starting on Wednesday may augur a change of tone, there were no signs it would lead to any imminent breakthrough.

Mr Obama's main challenge in advancing legislation on the budget and other priorities, including gun control and immigration reform, lies with the conservative Republican caucus in the House.

And Republicans refuse to agree to new tax revenue hikes to cut the deficit, demanding instead significant cuts to government programs, while Mr Obama insists on a "balanced" plan of closed tax loopholes and targeted spending cuts.

In another development on Wednesday, the House passed a stop-gap funding measure to keep the government operating through fiscal year 2013, ahead of a March 27 deadline.

The Republican-sponsored bill would shift several billion dollars to certain military operations as a way to soften the blow of the sequester.

It now heads to the Senate where Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid said lawmakers aim to expand on the House version by allowing other departments such as education to benefit from the same relief intended for the Pentagon.

Mr Obama and Republicans have said they don't plan to make funding the government into the next issue of budget brinkmanship.