In a remarkably sharp face-to-face confrontation, President Barack Obama chastised Republican lawmakers Friday for opposing him on taxes, healthcare and the economic stimulus, while they accused him in turn of brushing off their ideas and driving up the national debt.
The president and GOP House members took turns questioning and sometimes lecturing each other for more than an hour at a Republican gathering in Baltimore. The Republicans agreed to let TV cameras inside, resulting in an extended, point-by-point interchange that was almost unprecedented in U.S. politics, except perhaps during presidential debates.
With voters angry about partisanship and legislative logjams, both sides were eager to demonstrate they were ready to cooperate, resulting in the GOP invitation and Obama’s acceptance. After polite introductions, however, Friday’s exchange showed that Obama and the Republicans remain far apart on key issues, and neither side could resist the chance to challenge and even scold the other.
Obama said Republican lawmakers have attacked his healthcare overhaul so fiercely, “you’d think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot.” His proposals are mainstream, widely supported ideas, he said, and they deserve some GOP votes in Congress.
“I am not an ideologue,” the president declared.
But Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., pointedly asked Obama: “What should we tell our constituents who know that Republicans have offered positive solutions” for healthcare, “and yet continue to hear out of the administration that we’ve offered nothing?”
Obama showed little sympathy, disputing Price’s claim that a Republican plan would insure nearly all Americans without raising taxes.
“That’s just not true,” said Obama. He called such claims “boilerplate” meant to score political points.
At times it seemed more like Britain’s “question time” — when lawmakers in the House of Commons trade barbs with the prime minister — than a meeting between a U.S. president and members of Congress.
Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana defended Price on the healthcare proposals. He said a GOP agenda booklet given to Obama at the start of the session “is backed up by precisely the kind of detailed legislation that Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi and your administration have been busy ignoring for 12 months.”
Obama shot back that he had read the Republican proposals and that they promise solutions that can’t be realized.
In another barbed exchange, the president said some Republican lawmakers in the audience had attended ribbon-cutting ceremonies for projects in their districts funded by the 2009 stimulus package that they voted against.
Pence said Obama was trying to defend “a so-called stimulus that was a piecemeal list of projects and boutique tax cuts.”
Obama replied, “When you say they were boutique tax cuts, Mike, 95 percent of working Americans got tax cuts.”
“This notion that this was a radical package is just not true,” he said.
Republicans are feeling energized after winning a Democratic Senate seat in Massachusetts, and Obama is trying to refocus his stalled agenda more on jobs than healthcare. With Obama at a podium facing a hotel conference room full of Republicans, both sides jumped to the debate.
“It was the kind of discussion that we frankly need to have more of,” said House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.
“I’m having fun, this is great,” Obama said when Pence asked if he had time for more questions.
“So are we,” said Pence.
Some Republicans prefaced their questions with lengthy recitations of conservative talking points. The president sometimes listened impassively but sometimes broke in.
“I know there’s a question in there somewhere, because you’re making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with,” Obama said to Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, whom he mistakenly called “Jim.”
Obama, a former law school professor, launched into lectures of his own at times. He warned lawmakers from both parties against demonizing a political opponent, because voters might find it incomprehensible if the two sides ever agree on anything.
“We’ve got to be careful about what we say about each other sometimes, because it boxes us in in ways that makes it difficult for us to work together because our constituents start believing us,” Obama said. “So just a tone of civility instead of slash-and-burn would be helpful.”
Republicans sat attentively for the most part. There was some grumbling when Obama remarked — after being pressed about closed-door healthcare negotiations — that much of the legislation was developed in congressional committees in front of television cameras.
“That was a messy process,” Obama said.
GOP lawmakers pressured him to support a presidential line-item veto for spending bills and to endorse across-the-board tax cuts. Obama said he was ready to talk about the budget proposal, though he disputed accusations that his administration was to blame for big increases in deficit spending. And he demurred on the idea of cutting everyone’s taxes, saying with a smile that billionaires don’t need tax cuts.
In his opening remarks, Obama criticized what he said was a Washington culture driven by opinion polls and nonstop political campaigns.
“I don’t believe that the American people want us to focus on our job security, they want us to focus on their job security,” he said.
The president acknowledged that Republicans have joined Democrats in some efforts, such as sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. But he said he was disappointed and perplexed by virtually unanimous GOP opposition to other programs, such as the economic stimulus bill.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said of the event, “In some places I kind of felt like I was in my high school assembly being lectured by my principal. In others, I felt like he was listening.”
When it was over, House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio issued a statement saying Obama “acknowledged the fact that House Republicans have offered better solutions over the last year.”
Not exactly how the president and his allies saw it.