Georgia senators a target of Obama’s GOP outreach

On Wednesday Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss went to dinner with President Barack Obama, and his buddy and delegation mate Johnny Isakson took a presidential phone call.

All of a sudden, Obama has gone from relentlessly attacking Republicans to hoping to find common ground with them. Georgia’s Republican senators are on his checklist for good reason.

Chambliss braved the political flak at home to join with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., to seek a bipartisan budget deal. Now planning to retire next year, Chambliss is free from election politics.

Isakson is known around the Capitol as easy to work with and not inclined to instinctively see Democrats as the enemy. He even broke the single-party luncheon wall last year, sponsoring a Thursday barbecue – flown in from Sam’s BBQ1 in Marietta – for senators from both parties.

Neither Chambliss nor Isakson would talk in detail about their conversations with Obama, but both described them as positive.

“Communication is the key to understanding,” Isakson said. “And dueling press conferences and dueling accusations at press conferences don’t serve any good purpose, especially when you’re talking about moving forward on policy. This outreach is a good start.”

And it is substantial outreach. Aside from dining with a dozen GOP senators and calling others, Obama had lunch with GOP Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan and has planned rare presidential sojourns to Capitol Hill to meet with the full caucuses of Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.

The president’s approval rating has sunk in recent weeks as the parties could not agree on a way to avoid across-the-board program cuts, so the lawmaker stroking could be pure public relations. Obama’s travels around the country to scold Congress on immigration, guns and “sequestration” budget cuts, not to mention the previous four years of combat, have left a bad taste in Republican mouths.

“You have a right I think to be (distrustful) a little bit after a guy stepped on your toes and kicked you in the shins, to think he might not mean you complete good,” said Steve Bell, of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who has worked with lawmakers from both parties on a “grand bargain” budget deal.

Bell was a top staffer to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., when Domenici ran the Budget Committee during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Bell said Clinton’s back-slapping style helped forge some trust with Capitol Hill Republicans, even in the face of partisan rancor over Clinton’s various scandals.

Many Washingtonians romanticize the days of more fraternizing between the parties and claim much more got done as a result. The reality of those days is messier, and the current dearth of bipartisan get-togethers is a symptom of larger forces such as polarization and a perpetual campaign mentality. Those issues are not solved at cocktail hour.

But such interaction is still valuable, said Jim Kessler of the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way and a former staffer to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Phone calls and meals will not necessarily force movement from the parties’ positions on taxes and entitlement programs, but at least they might make political adversaries appear less like caricatures.

Said Kessler, “It’s amazing what one can accomplish if you don’t think your opponents are evil or crazy.”