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CNN - House GOP Warily Holds Out Hand to Obama

News Article

Location: Washington, DC

By Deirdre Walsh

When President Barack Obama enters the conference room in the Capitol basement Wednesday to sit down with House Republicans, he'll be met by a group that says it's willing to listen but deeply skeptical of the president's so-called "charm offensive."

"There is clearly some healing to the relationship that has to happen on all sides. You don't solve that with one nice dinner and one nice meal. That's the equivalent of thinking you're going to take care of a problem relationship just by sending flowers," Michigan Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga told CNN.

Tennessee Republican Steven Fincher, elected in 2010, recalled his one other meeting with the president -- in June 2011 when all House Republicans were invited to the White House -- saying that meeting "did not go so well."

"Hopefully tomorrow he is not as combative and is more willing to listen," Fincher told CNN Tuesday.

Several House GOP members told CNN they have low expectations for the meeting with Obama, where they'll discuss the budget and debt reduction, but are glad it's happening. All of them emphasized that if the president is serious about working across the aisle it should have happened earlier.

Huizenga said the Obama administration may have focused its attention on top leaders, but hasn't shown any interest in talking to key Republican committee leaders or rank-and-file members, and that effort requires time and attention.

"If you don't have a relationship, it's very hard to trust people," Huizenga said.

Cynicism about the meeting and the White House intentions was amplified Tuesday when the National Journal published an article quoting an administration official saying the new outreach effort was a "joke" and done largely for the media's benefit. House Republican aides widely circulated the article to reporters, but White House press secretary Jay Carney was quick to disavow the comment.

"It does not represent the president's view. It does not represent the White House's view and it does not represent the administration's view," Carney said Tuesday.

One factor posing a challenge to the president is the fact that more than half of all House Republicans were elected since Obama became president and the newcomers campaigned on blocking Obama's agenda and rolling back key accomplishments, such as his health care law.

Republicans, while skeptical, welcome Obama outreach

Since they arrived on Capitol Hill, this significant chunk of the House GOP conference has known only divided government. They have moved from one showdown with the White House to another on spending issues and they are used to serving as the president's chief adversaries.

But House Republicans recognize that the American people are tired of gridlock and they want to see things get done.

"I am ready to try to work this out on behalf of the American people, but at the same time we can't compromise our core principles," Fincher said.

Fincher and others warn that the GOP doesn't just want to hear more talk about both parties working together, they want to see evidence that the president will consider their ideas, not just attempt to force them to accept his.

"We don't need a 'charm offensive' -- we need a substance offensive, where he's going to actually work with us on substance and not just try to charm us," New Jersey Republican Rep. Scott Garrett told CNN.

Obama outreach to 'defuse' GOP opposition, Pelosi says

Freshman Republican Rep. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has never met Obama and told CNN he has "tempered" expectations about the afternoon session because there are real philosophical differences between how the two parties are approaching entitlement and tax reform.

But Cotton said if the president reiterates the same openness he had in private meetings with other GOP members recently that could be a good sign.

Garrett pointed out that the meeting is happening on the same day that the House Budget Committee is considering chairman Paul Ryan's budget, but still hasn't seen anything from the president on how he wants to address the deficit.

Analysis: What's behind Obama's charm offensive?

"It would mean something more, I guess, if he came over here and had complied with the law and already given a budget that we could consider than to come here after the fact," the New Jersey Republican said.

But congressional Republicans are also using this meeting to put the onus on the president to take the lead -- and prove he wants to improve his relationship with Republicans on the Hill.

"He has an opportunity to do that -- whether or not he chooses to, we'll see," Georgia Republican Rep. Tom Graves said.

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