It’s ladies’ night at the White House.
All 20 members of the Senate Women’s Caucus joined President Obama for dinner at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on Tuesday, after New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand suggested inviting the president to one of the group’s quarterly meetings.
“I said, you know, now that you’re starting your new term, if you want to create a bipartisan agenda, a great place to start is with the women senators,” Gillibrand told Andrea Mitchell Tuesday, of a conversation between herself and the president aboard Air Force One just after the election.
“He said, ‘Well, that’s a great idea. And I’ll have you one better: Instead of going to one of your dinners, I’ll have you come to the White House.’”
The bipartisan summit comes at a crucial time. After expending tremendous political capital in the wake of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., last December, President Obama failed to shepherd his promised gun control legislation through Congress. Expanded background checks for gun purchasers failed in the Senate last Wednesday, after Democrats were unable to gather the 60 votes necessary to move the bill forward. Previously, an assault weapons ban and a ban on high-capacity magazines also languished.
North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a red state Democrat in her first term, broke with her party to oppose expanded background checks. She was last to commit to Tuesday night’s dinner.
The record number of women elected to the Senate last November skews heavily Democratic, with just four Republican women in office: New Hampshire’s Kelly Ayotte, Maine’s Susan Collins, Nebraska’s Deb Fischer, and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.
Ayotte, Fischer, Murkowski and Heitkamp were part of the group of 45 senators who voted “no” on gun control last Wednesday. The president called it “a pretty shameful day for Washington,” standing beside former congresswoman and gun control advocate Gabrielle Giffords as well as families of Newtown victims in the Rose Garden after the vote. The tally came up 54-46; six votes shy of passage.
Sixty votes is the new golden number in the Senate of the 113th Congress, which is bitterly divided over nearly all hot-button issues.
Gillibrand pointed out that both Murkowski and Heitkamp voted in favor of a gun trafficking bill introduced earlier this year, and pointed to the women’s caucus as a good place for the president to foster his agenda and garner support on both sides of the aisle.
“I think today is a time of great need for bipartisanship, ” Gillibrand said. “We’ve just seen guns not go in the direction we needed it to go. We have immigration on deck. We have a tough economy still in front of us that we need solutions for. And I think the women can very much be part of that debate in bringing it forward.”
Tuesday night’s dinner is the latest in a series of “dinner dates” hosted by Obama, either at the White House or at Washington, D.C.-area restaurants. Less than two weeks ago, Obama broke bread with Senate Republicans to talk about the deficit, immigration and gun violence.
“I think what the president is doing right now is the smart approach,” Gillibrand told Mitchell Tuesday. “I think the more he engages senators one-on-one, he will cultivate support and find common ground himself.”
The White House said the dinner menu included Alaskan halibut and peach pie.