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Toe to toe, it was Obama vs. GOP

BALTIMORE — In a remarkably sharp face-to-face confrontation, President Barack Obama chastised Republican lawmakers Friday for opposing him on taxes, health care 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 lawmakers took turns questioning and sometimes lecturing each other for more than an hour at an annual retreat of House Republicans 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 health care 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, drawing laughter and chatter from Republicans, many of whom consider him the most liberal president ever.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., pointedly asked Obama: "What should we tell our constituents who know that Republicans have offered positive solutions" for health care, "and yet continue to hear out of the administration that we've offered nothing?"

Obama showed little sympathy, disputing Price's claim that a GOP plan would insure nearly all Americans without raising taxes.

"That's just not true," Obama said. He called such claims "boilerplate" to score political points.

Republican Conference chairman Mike Pence of Indiana defended Price on the health care 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, Obama 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 health care.

"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," Pence said.

Some Republicans prefaced their questions with lengthy recitations of conservative talking points. Obama 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 health care negotiations — that much of the legislation was developed in congressional committees in front of television cameras.

"That was a messy process," Obama said.

Obama demurred on the idea of cutting everyone's taxes, saying with a smile that billionaires don't need tax cuts.

Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.

Toe to toe, it was Obama vs. GOP 01/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 11:39pm]

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