* President taking Republicans to dinner; invited to lunch
* Washington may be responding to public impatience
* Obama approval rating dips to 43 percent in new poll
By David Lawder and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, March 6 Legislation easily passed
the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday to avert another
partisan budget battle and a possible government shutdown, as
President Barack Obama also opened new lines of communication
By a vote of 267-151, the House passed a measure to fund
government programs until the end of the fiscal year on Sept.
30. The Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to pass a
similar bill next week.
Without such legislation federal agencies would run out of
money on March 27.
The bill to continue funding the government without
last-minute drama came as Obama took the unusual step of
inviting Republican senators to dinner on Wednesday night at a
Washington hotel a few blocks from the White House.
An administration official told Reuters that Obama was
hoping to take advantage of a lull in a series of budget crises
to launch a dialogue with Republican lawmakers, which he hopes
will lead to a broad deficit-reduction deal.
While the dinner is not intended to be a negotiation, it is
an opportunity for Obama to correct the record on a perception
among some Republicans that he is unwilling to consider some
difficult spending cuts that are unpopular with his fellow
Democrats in Congress.
Those could include cuts to programs that include the Social
Security pension system and Medicare for the elderly.
Besides budget matters, the official said Obama wants to
discuss his other legislative priorities, including immigration
reform, gun control and tackling climate change.
In another bipartisan gesture, Republican Senate Minority
Leader Mitch McConnell said that at his suggestion, Obama will
join Republicans for a lunch on Capitol Hill on March 14.
The meetings, whether or not they produce results, depart
from what has been an at best a stand-offish relationship
between Obama and Republicans in Congress.
They suggest that Obama and Republicans are getting the
message that public patience with Washington is wearing thin.
This has become apparent as Americans read of inconveniences
they may soon confront at airports and elsewhere as a result of
across-the-board cuts to the federal budget that kicked in on
Friday after lawmakers and the White House failed to agree on an
"This is the first indication in really a long time that the
president is willing to exert leadership and bring people
together and that's exactly what needs to be done," said
Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who has spoken by
phone in recent days with Obama.
At the heart of the bitter U.S. budget dispute are deep
differences over how to rein in growth of the $16.7 trillion
federal debt. Obama wants to narrow the fiscal gap with spending
cuts and tax hikes. Republicans do not want to concede again on
taxes after doing so in negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" at
the New Year.
Despite the scheduled dinners and meetings and the vote on
funding the government, few expect those differences to be
resolved any time soon.
Some Republicans remain skeptical of Obama's overtures.
"This president has been exceptional in his lack of consultation
and outreach to Congress," said John Cornyn of Texas, the
second-ranking Senate Republican.
Cornyn, like Collins, was not invited to dinner with Obama,
but he warned that talk of tax increases would be unwelcome. "I
don't know if the purpose of the meeting is social or if he has
an agenda. But if it is about raising taxes, we're done."
While Republicans have taken most of the beating in surveys
in connection with the so-called sequestration, a Reuters/Ipsos
online poll released on Wednesday showed 43 percent of people
approve of Obama's handling of his job, down 7 percentage points
from Feb. 19.
Confounding the White House's efforts to blame Republicans
for the spendiong cuts, most respondents in the online survey
hold both Democrats and Republicans responsible.
As recently as last month, Republicans were threatening to
use the bill to fund the government, called a "continuing
resolution," to extract spending cuts from the White House.
Instead, the bill they fashioned, which passed on Wednesday,
embraced the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts that were
triggered last Friday, while providing some additional spending
flexibility to the military and other security operations.
Republican Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma said his
party would like to shift the cuts to other areas of the budget,
noting that there are 20,000 military employees in his Oklahoma
"We'll sit down and renegotiate where they should come
from," Cole said in the debate on the House floor. "We think
we've got some great ideas, but they (the cuts) are going to
occur. They're the first and appropriate step for getting our
fiscal house back in order."
Many Democrats in the Republican-controlled House voted
against the funding bill because it would not give the Obama
administration flexibility in carrying out the new, automatic
spending cuts for domestic programs such as education. Last
month, Democrats had sought to replace about half of the
automatic cuts with tax increases on the rich.
"This bill falls short in a number of areas, but most of all
because it does nothing to prevent the loss of 750,000 jobs that
will result because of the sequester," said Representative Chris
Van Hollen, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee.