WASHINGTON - Punctuated with the sounds of ringing phones and clinking china, President Obama's new legislative diplomacy has Republicans wondering what took so long.
Obama pressed ahead Thursday with his bipartisan outreach, eliciting a cautious welcome in a capital that has been riven by gridlock and partisanship over how to lower deficits and stabilize the nation's debt.
Obama had the Republican House Budget Committee chairman, Paul Ryan, and the committee's top Democrat, Chris Van Hollen, to lunch at the White House, a day after he dined with a dozen Republican senators in what the White House said was an effort to find common ground with rank-and-file lawmakers.
Few were willing to guarantee that the engagement would yield results. Previous presidents have tried to develop relationships with members of Congress with varying success, though some of the biggest pieces of legislation, such as the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a Social Security deal in 1983 required cross-party efforts by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan.
Obama has negotiated directly in the past with House Speaker John Boehner in hopes of finding a large deficit-reduction deal, but those efforts have faltered as the president pursued deals with tax increases that Republicans oppose.
Most recently, neither side worked hard to avoid $85 billion in automatic spending cuts and instead devolved into partisan finger-pointing over which side was more to blame.
Boehner said Obama's new approach represented a 180-degree turn.
"He is going to, after being in office now over four years, he is actually going to sit down and talk to members," Boehner said. "I think it is a sign, a hopeful sign, and I'm hopeful that something will come out of it. But if the president continues to insist on tax hikes, I don't think we're going to get very far."