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Republican senators share "candid" dinner with Obama

By Roberta Rampton

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A dozen Republican senators talked about how to reach a "big agreement" on the nation's debt and deficit over dinner with President Barack Obama on Wednesday night, the start of what one of the senators hoped was a new round of intense fiscal discussions.

"It was a really good conversation. It was candid. We really talked about how do we get to a big agreement in terms of the debt and deficit?" Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota said after the private dinner with Obama at the Jefferson Hotel near the White House.

Obama also enjoyed the dinner, a senior administration official said in a statement, noting "a good exchange of ideas with the senators."

Hoeven said he felt "genuine desire" among the people in the room to tackle tax and entitlement reform in the next four to five months, as the White House and Congress face a series of deadlines to fund the government and deal with the debt ceiling.

"That really creates pressure to come to an agreement, a big-picture agreement," Hoeven told Reuters.

The meeting came on the heels of the failure of the White House and Congress to agree on how to avert $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts called the "sequester," which has touched off a fight about who was to blame.

Hoeven said he was optimistic that Republicans and Democrats both wanted to work through the issues and avert more congressional gridlock.

"I hope things are changing," he said.

But Hoeven emphasized it would take a lot more talks, led by Obama, to make progress.

"This kind of intense dialogue needs to be continuous," he said.

Obama is slated to meet with the full Republican Senate caucus next week, and will also pay a visit to Republicans in the House of Representatives.

"I think we'll make some progress," Hoeven said. "We have to get there."

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina drew up the guest list for the dinner, the White House said. Other senators there were Bob Corker of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, Dan Coats of Indiana, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia.

(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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