Obama and the Republicans; Let’s try to work together

It wasn’t exactly sweetness and light when President Obama visited with House Republicans today in an extraordinary Q-and-A session that exposed their stark political differences.

Obama told Republicans he welcomed disagreement and debate, but also knocked them for opposing the stimulus bill on “disappointing” party-line votes and making what he called false claims about health care.

“You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, ‘This guy’s doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America,'” Obama told House GOP members gathered at a retreat in Baltimore.

Obama also protested some of the Republican objections to his health care initiative. “If you were to listen to the debate — and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill — you’d think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot,” Obama said.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, challenged Obama by saying he had backtracked on hiring lobbyists and holding health care talks on television.

“I can look you in the eye and tell you, we have not been obstructionist,” Chaffetz also said. “The Democrats have the House and Senate and the presidency.”

And Rep. Tom Price, G-Pa., pointedly asked the president: “What should we tell our constituents who know that Republicans have offered positive solutions to the challenges that Americans face and yet continue to hear out of the administration that we’ve offered nothing?”

Obama said no administration has been tougher on lobbying reform than his, but he said he agreed that the health care talks have not been handled well. “I think it’s legitimate criticism,” Obama said. “So on that one, I take responsibility.”

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The two sides also clashed over tax cuts and budget deficits. It is very rare for presidents to take questions from lawmakers of the opposite party, especially with television cameras rolling.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, read a long question to Obama that included the statement, “Your administration proposed a budget that would triple the national debt over the next 10 years — surely you don’t believe 10 years from now we will still be mired in this recession.”

Obama eventually cut off Hensarling, saying: “I know there’s a question in there somewhere, because you’re making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with … at some point, I know you’re going to let me answer.” (Obama also referred to Jeb Hensarling, three times, as “Jim.”)

Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., asked Obama twice whether he would support across-the-board tax cuts for all Americans, “as President Kennedy did.” Obama said, “I’m going to take a look at what you guys propose” and “check your math” in terms of balancing the budget.

For his part, Obama urged Republican support on newer parts of his economic policy, including fees for banks that received federal help and tax credits for employers who hire more workers.

During his discussion of the stimulus, Obama noted that the bill now priced at $862 billion included tax cuts as well as needed infrastructure construction. “Some of you have been at the ribbon-cuttings for some of these important projects in your communities,” Obama said, needling his audience.

He also said both parties need to shun the kinds of point-scoring and election-year posturing that have turned off their constituents.

Americans “don’t want us to focus on our job security,” Obama said. “They want us to focus on their job security.”

At another point, Obama told seemingly skeptical Republicans that “I am not an ideologue — I’m not.”

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The House Republicans, meanwhile, gave Obama a book listing their policy proposals.

Will the appearance cool partisan passions in Washington?

Well, Obama opened his statement with a variation of a movie line: “Keep your friends close, but visit the Republican caucus every few months.”

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