They're finally talking - but to what end?
The past few days have seen an assiduously engaged President Obama, meeting and dining with GOP lawmakers in an attempt to rekindle a budget negotiation process that has time and again foiled compromise.
Today, Mr. Obama broke bread - sea bass and lentil soup, more accurately - with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., the House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee. The two men were joined at lunch by the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
"I thank President Obama for hosting a frank discussion about Washington's budget challenges. Everyone needs to be a part of this conversation," Ryan said after the lunch. "We need an open debate about how best to balance the budget and expand opportunity. I look forward to having that debate next week with specific budget proposals from House Republicans and Senate Democrats."
Last night, the president had dinner with 12 Republican senators, an event initiated by Mr. Obama.
"It was an excellent dinner. It was a genuine, sincere open discussion of the fiscal problems facing the nation," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., said after the meal.
And on the heels of that convivial dining, the president will meet with both the Senate and House Republican conferences next week.
It all amounts to a remarkable level of engagement from a president who has been characterized by foes - and even some allies - as too aloof and disengaged from his opposition.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said today that the meetings are born out of a "sincere interest" to avert another budget crisis like the "fiscal cliff" fight at the start of 2013 or the more recent battle over the spending cuts in the sequester.
"There is an opportunity here," Carney said, "To return to some sense of normalcy...regular order, engage in a budget process, negotiation and debate, that hopefully produces a bipartisan compromise."
"That is what formed the president's interest in having the dinner he had last night," Carney said, "and it more broadly forms the approach he's taken speaking with lawmakers."
As for why the president did not seize the opportunity to schmooze Republican lawmakers during past budget fights, Carney blamed "changed circumstances," explaining that past budget fights have required "direct, highly charged negotiations" to reach an agreement before a hard and fast deadline. This time, Carney said, "We don't have to produce a deal by Friday," which may explain the more open-ended, consultative tenor of the last few days.
It's all good news for people hoping to see a scintilla of cooperation in Washington, but none of this newfound comity means policymakers are out of the woods just yet.
The continuing resolution currently funding the government expires on March 27, and if Congress and the president cannot agree on a new resolution before then, the federal government will shut down.
Yesterday, the House of Representatives passed a new continuing resolution that would keep the government funded through the end of the fiscal year. That bill, passed by a bipartisan majority, locked in post-sequester spending levels but includes provisions that would give defense and veterans programs greater flexibility to adjust to the spending cuts contained in the sequester. It did not include similar provisions for flexibility in nondefense spending.
Democrats objected. "This is neither regular order nor rational policy," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said on the floor prior to the vote. "This CR does nothing to address the irrational cuts to defense and nondefense that the sequester will require."
"We should not allow, my colleagues, our government to shut down," Hoyer added, "but we cannot do business this way."
The White House said it was "deeply concerned" about the lack of flexibility for non-defense spending in the House-backed resolution but stopped short of issuing a fully-fledged veto threat, signaling that preventing a government shutdown remains a top priority for all sides.
Despite complaints from Democrats, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, defended the continuing resolution today and warned Senate Democrats not to amend the resolution in any significant way that could jeopardize its eventual passage.
"Everyone has something they would like to add to this bill," he said, "but the House is not using this as a vehicle to advance other agendas. I would hope the Senate too would avoid doing so and either pass our bill or only make straightforward changes."
Boehner cautioned Democrats "not to get greedy and get carried away and try to put forward the possibility of a government shutdown."
"Our goal here is to cut spending," he said, "not to shut down the government."