President Obama descended upon the Jefferson Hotel, "a neutral gathering place," Wednesday night for a secretive dinner date with a group of Republican senators. Encouragingly, a food fight did not ensue. But with the extent to which the administration shrouded the meeting in mystery, we don't know much more about what happened, what was discussed or what they ate at this point in time. We do know that the president paid the bill. Or at least the White House says he did. One senator says otherwise. (UPDATE: "The White House says POTUS paid for the dinner out of his own pocket," reports the pool.)
Journalists were not allowed into the hotel. In fact, they weren't even allowed on the sidewalk in front of the hotel, and the White House press pool camped out across the street along with other reporters, including BuzzFeed's Rebecca Berg who tweeted updates throughout the night. The pool spoke severely about the blackout. Susan Crabtree of the Washington Times wrote:
The White House is treating the dinner details as state secrets. So far, it won't confirm which senators were invited or which senators attended, who paid the bill or even where in the Jefferson Hotel they ate. There is a restaurant at the hotel — Plume — but no word whether POTUS and the GOP senators ate there or in a private room.
After dinner, the White House finally released the guest list: Senator Lindsey Graham, Bob Corker, Kelly Ayotte, John McCain, Dan Coats, Tom Coburn, Richard Burr, Mike Johanns, Pat Toomey, Ron Johnson, John Hoeven and Saxby Chambliss.
It sounds like it went really well. A senior administration official told the pool afterwards, "The President greatly enjoyed the dinner and had a good exchange of ideas with the Senators." Sen. McCain was reportedly flashing a thumbs up and saying that everything went "just fine." Sen. Hoeven, meanwhile, was apparently pretty chatty, telling reporters "This kind of dialogue is what we need more of." The leaders discussed everything from the sequester to tax reform. It sounds like a pretty pleasant evening, especially since they beat the snow.
The bill-paying, however, was apparently a little awkward — or at least confusing. Initial reports said that nobody know who paid the bill, but a little less than an hour after dinner, the press pool reported, "The White House said POTUS paid for the dinner." Minutes later Berg, who had previously tweeted that "the senators and Obama split the dinner," offered up a rebuttal. "Here's exactly what Sen. Hoeven said: 'It was shared by a number of us,' " she said.
Oh goodness, is it a scandal??? No. These things tend to be taken care of ahead of time, and if the White House says it paid the bill, it probably did. Hoeven probably just didn't realize what happened. Or if he did, who cares. (UPDATE: It's definitely not a scandal. Hoeven's office later confirmed that the president paid the bill, however "Chambliss offered to split it.")
The important takeaway from an event like this is that everybody had a nice time. Until we hear the specific details of the conversation — and they probably will — it's pretty encouraging to know that President Obama played nice with a group of GOP Senators, and they played nice back. Now, it's time to see if that niceness makes its way to the negotiating table. Obama's scheduled to meet with a larger group of Republican lawmakers next week. As far as we know, dinner will not be provided.