Obama presses on with GOP charm offensive

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama

pressed on with his Republican charm offensive Thursday, holding a White

House lunch

with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan in an effort to

soften the ground for potential talks on a long-term deficit

reduction deal.

On Capitol Hill, efforts to stave off a late March government shutdown shifted to the Senate after House Republicans swiftly

passed legislation to keep federal agencies running, while also easing some effects of $85 billion in budget cuts. If the

shutdown can be avoided, it could clear the way for lawmakers and Obama to at least discuss a broader budget agreement.

Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the budget committee's top Democrat, also attended Thursday's lunch with the president and

Ryan. The midday gathering followed the president's Wednesday night dinner with a dozen Republican senators.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama found the dinner "very constructive and very pleasant."

"We don't have to agree on everything, we don't have to solve all of our differences to move forward on finding solutions

to the challenges that we face," Carney said.

House Speaker John Boehner — who has not been among the Republicans the president has reached out to in recent days — said

Obama's recent overtures were a "hopeful sign" that progress could be made in breaking the impasse over how to reduce the

federal deficit. Still, he said those efforts wouldn't get very far if Obama continues to insist on tax increases.

While no real breakthroughs were expected from Obama's gatherings with Republicans, the mere fact that they were happening

was significant given the lack of direct engagement between Obama and rank-and-file Republicans over the past two years.

White House and congressional aides said the president and lawmakers had a good exchange of ideas centered on how they could

work together to tackle the nation's fiscal problems.

"It was, I thought, a very sincere discussion," Sen. Bob Corker, one the dinner attendees, said in an interview Thursday with

The Associated Press. "Everybody laid their cards on the table. I thought it was constructive."

"I do think it helped a lay a foundation

that maybe sometime between now and when the debt ceiling hits, which is

really around

the first of August or that time frame, maybe we'll get to a much

broader and deeper deal as it relates to solving our fiscal

problems, " Corker, R-Tenn., said.

He said that while both sides emphasize different components of a long-term deficit reduction deal, "there is more commonality

than people think."

It would take months for compromise talks on

a broad deficit reduction deal to bear fruit, and there is little sign

of shifts

on the key difference that separates the parties. Obama is seeking

higher taxes as part of his deficit-cutting approach, while

Ryan, author of the House GOP budget, previewed a longer-term plan

Wednesday to erase federal deficits without raising taxes.

"I think this whole thing will come to a

crescendo this summer, and we're going to have to talk to each other to

get an agreement

about how to delay a debt crisis, how to save this country from a

fiscal train wreck that's coming," Ryan said. He added that

he had spoken with Obama in recent days but declined to provide

details.

Obama's phone call with Ryan and other

congressional Republicans, along with Wednesday's dinner, mark a shift

in tactics for

a president who has been reluctant to reach out personally to

lawmakers. But White House efforts to compel Republicans to

negotiate by mounting public pressure campaigns proved futile in

the efforts to avert the automatic spending cuts that started

taking effect Friday.

Corker said the group had a "frank discussion" about the confrontational tone and public rhetoric that has marked the debate.

"On the one hand, to sit down in a room and

be sincere and talk about a problem in a real way, and then to go out

the microphones

and the cameras and put on the gloves, there was a strong

acknowledgment last night that that's not a way of dealing with

our nation's biggest issues," Corker said.

Lawmakers and the White House are now looking for ways to ease the impact of the "sequester," as the automatic cuts are called,

at the same time they seek to prevent a shutdown of federal agencies on March 27.

The legislation that cleared the House on

Wednesday on a bipartisan vote would do both, ensuring funding through

the Sept.

30 end of the budget year while granting the Pentagon and the

Veterans Affairs Department greater flexibility in implementing

their share of short-term spending cuts.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where

Democrats and the White House are deep in negotiations with Republicans

on changes

that would give the Homeland Security Department and other

domestic agencies the same type of flexibility that the Pentagon

would receive in administering the spending cuts.

As the president looks toward longer-term

talks on deficit reduction, he is pointedly skipping over the Boehner

and Senate

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, both of whom insist Obama will

get no further tax hikes from Capitol Hill. Instead, aides

say, Obama is focusing his outreach on lawmakers with a history of

bipartisan deal-making and those who have indicated some

willingness to support increased tax revenue as part of a big

deficit-cutting package.

Along with Corker, the lawmakers in

attendance at Wednesday's dinner were Sens. John McCain of Arizona,

Lindsey Graham of

South Carolina, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Kelly Ayotte of New

Hampshire, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin,

Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Dan Coats

of Indiana, Richard Burr of North Carolina and Mike Johanns

of Nebraska.

Obama advisers say they're hopeful that without the heightened pressure of an imminent fiscal deadline, the president and

Republicans can have constructive conversations on a broad deficit-reduction bill that would include concessions from the

GOP on tax increases and from Democrats on entitlement programs.

But unless Boehner and McConnell bend on taxes, prospects for a sweeping deficit deal remain dim.

The president will have an opportunity to

make his case to GOP leaders next week when he heads to Capitol Hill for

separate

meetings with the House and Senate Republican conferences.

McConnell announced that Obama would attend the GOP Senate policy

lunch and Boehner's office said the president would meet with

House Republicans Wednesday.

Obama will also meet on Capitol Hill next week with House and Senate Democrats.