By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A winter storm all but closed down Washington on Wednesday, but hopes for a political thaw sprouted across the U.S. capital.
In a city gripped by partisan gridlock, President Barack Obama's plans for a private dinner with a small group of Senate Republicans on Wednesday night - and a trip to Capitol Hill next week to speak to their entire caucus - qualified as groundbreaking.
Obama's personal touch, something he has been criticized for lacking, also included a series of recent calls to Republican lawmakers as the White House seeks allies for a grand budget deal that includes higher taxes and an overhaul of federal health programs.
At the same time, Republicans have promised not to shut down the government at the end of the month and a few have shown a new willingness to find a long-term solution to the perpetual budget wars - even if it means new taxes.
After Obama's re-election and Republican losses in the Senate and House of Representatives in November, bipartisan groups of lawmakers have been working to craft broad agreements on two of the president's other top second-term priorities - immigration and gun control.
"There are certainly hopeful signs recently on both sides," said Trent Lott, a former Senate Republican leader who has been praised by the Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for reaching across the aisle while in Congress. "There are some calmer, cooler heads taking over."
Pent-up frustration over the lack of policy achievements in Congress in the last two years - along with poll numbers in the low teens for lawmakers in Congress and approval ratings dipping below 50 percent for the president - also might have helped generate some political movement.
But analysts and some congressional aides in both parties cautioned against reading too much into the warming relations.
"It doesn't hurt to have people over to dinner when you are trying to build a relationship and reach an agreement, but it's only going to work if they have an inclination to strike a deal in the first place," said congressional analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute.
"The idea that all he needs to do is schmooze with these members and they will change their strategy is a little absurd," Ornstein said.
Republican congressional leaders have been adamant in refusing to consider new tax revenues as a way to reduce the debt in a long-term budget deal that would end the automatic spending cuts that kicked in last Friday or fund the government beyond the end of the fiscal year.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed a measure on Wednesday to fund the government through September 30, the end of the fiscal year, potentially averting an immediate showdown. The Senate is expected to approve a similar bill.
Obama has been criticized for refusing to make personal overtures to his Republican foes. Most of his efforts in the past have been aimed unsuccessfully at Republican leaders in Congress, including Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell, who once famously said that a party priority was to make Obama a one-term president.
Now Obama appears to be looking for allies among a dozen or so rank-and-file Republican senators who have indicated they would be willing to work with the White House.
If he is successful, he could forge a bipartisan Senate majority on issues that could force the Republican-controlled House to act.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who says he would back a budget deal that includes up to $600 billion in new revenue in exchange for reforms to the Medicare and Medicaid health programs, was among those invited to the dinner at a hotel near the White House.
According to a source, Graham drew up the list of invitees to the dinner at a small expensive hotel, The Jefferson, near the White House.
Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who also was invited, said any deal must include "long-term structural reforms" of Medicaid and Medicare - something Obama has indicated he is willing to discuss despite objections from some of his fellow Democrats.
"I am happy to work with the president if he is willing to work with us," Toomey said.
Julian Zelizer, a historian at Princeton University, said the accommodating talk from both sides masked the fact that neither party was budging much.
"There is a tension between the rhetoric and actually taking the votes," he said. "They might be speaking differently, but it's not clear they are willing to make a deal."
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Rachelle Younglai; Editing by Fred Barbash and Xavier Briand)