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Obama, House GOP polite yet apart after Baltimore debate

Baltimore Sun

President Barack Obama engaged House Republicans in an extraordinary televised debate Friday, days after calling for a more bipartisan approach to governing.

The tone was civil, but Obama stood his ground as he parried some of the harshest critics of his performance as president. His Republican hosts, aware that the event was being beamed live from a Baltimore hotel, went out of their way to show deference and largely pulled their punches.

"You know, I'm having fun," Obama said, to laughter, when asked if he had time for more questions. "This is great."

If the session was rare by the standards of American politics - and it was - it didn't rise to the level of question time in the British House of Commons, where opposition politicians hurl barely disguised insults at the prime minister. In the ballroom of an Inner Harbor hotel, Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who loudly called the president a liar at a joint session of Congress last year, was never heard from.

To occasional grumbling from the Republican assemblage, Obama maintained that he was not an ideologue and had repeatedly incorporated their ideas into his initiatives.

Obama insisted that the differences between the two major parties are much narrower than they are often made out to be. At the same time, he was repeatedly critical, sometimes sharply so, in deploring what he described as a Republican desire to "score political points" at the cost of better government in opposing his policies.

Obama said that Republicans have attacked his agenda as "some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives." As a result, he added, "you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me."

In line with his remarks about partisanship in Wednesday night's State of the Union address, Obama said Democrats and Republicans were both to blame for demonizing the opposition party - typically to satisfy more extreme elements of the left or right. That is one of the reasons, he added, that it has gotten tougher to actually get things done in Washington.

"I think both sides can take some blame for a sour climate on Capitol Hill," he said, after hearing repeated criticism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's style of leadership.

The 178 Republican congressmen and women, out of power in the House and lacking the leverage that Senate rules give Republican senators, have become the stepchildren of today's Washington politics. Largely shut out of legislative deal-making in the Democratic House, they protest that their policy alternatives have been routinely ignored. House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio presented a copy of the Republican election-year policy manual, "Better Solutions," to the president, who reacted to the title with a broad grin.

Obama tried to address the Republicans' overall complaint, mentioning a list of their ideas that he said he'd already adopted. He said that not only does he study Republican proposals in detail, he reads the substance of Republican legislation, even if he ultimately decides to reject it.

At the 90-minute luncheon, the high point of a three-day Republican retreat at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, Obama was generous in giving the Republicans both his time and personal attention. After delivering an opening speech, he took their questions for more than an hour, much longer than scheduled. Then he stayed to shake hands and pose for pictures with the congressmen and their families.

While inviting the Republicans to challenge his ideas, he also confronted theirs and wasn't shy about criticizing their actions. Pointedly accusing Republicans of what amounted to hypocrisy, he openly questioned the motivation behind their opposition to his economic stimulus plan, which received no Republican votes in the House.

"A lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon-cuttings for the same projects that you voted against," he said. "If there's uniform opposition because the Republican caucus doesn't get 100 percent or 80 percent of what you want, then it's going to be hard to get a deal done."

Rep. Jason Chafetz, a freshman Republican from Utah, stood and told Obama, "I can look you in the eye and tell you, we have not been obstructionist."

The president defended at length his embattled health-care overhaul plan. He described it as "pretty centrist," arguing that it was "pretty similar" to a plan put forward by two former Republican leaders, Bob Dole and Howard Baker, and former Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

"Frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you'd think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot," Obama said, to laughter. "That's how you guys presented it."

At another point, he sought to ally himself with Republicans against a common enemy: the news media. "The problems we have sometimes is a media that responds only to slash-and-burn style politics," the president said.

Obama acknowledged he had failed to do a better job of bringing Democratic and Republican leaders together. In response to sharp questioning from Chafetz, he conceded he had broken a campaign promise to put legislative negotiations over health care on C-SPAN, which did carry the Baltimore event, along with other cable channels.

The Baltimore luncheon had originally been planned as a two-part event: remarks by the president, open to the news media, followed by a private question session with lawmakers. The president had held a similar closed session with the Republicans last year.

But White House aides persuaded the Republicans, who have been critical of Obama for failing to redeem pledges to make government more transparent, to open the entire event to the news media.

"In the end everyone agreed it would be better if it were open to the press - and we were right," deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton said in an e-mail.

Republicans were generous in praising the president for the open discussion, while accusing him of ducking some of their questions.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, accused by Obama of posing a dishonest campaign talking point in the form of a question, called the event "an honest conversation. I find myself agreeing with 80 percent of what the president says. I just disagree with 80 percent of what he does."

Obama's visit "accomplished a lot," the conservative Republican added. "It's a big tribute to the president that he would come, take the tough questions and have a dialogue."

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, the sole Maryland Republican in Congress, said he was impressed that Obama was so "nimble on his feet," particularly since the president spent the question session on the defensive. But the Frederick congressman said Obama must be out of touch because "if he understands what's going on in the country, it's not obvious from his public statements."

Jan Baran, a Republican election lawyer from Washington, compared the event to a heavyweight fight. He described the atmosphere in the room as "a mixture of mistrust, respect, occasional humor and tension," adding: "This is really democracy at its best."

Obama also used the Baltimore trip, his first since taking office, to promote a business tax-cut proposal designed to spur job creation. He toured the Chesapeake Machine Co. in Highlandtown and hailed just-released figures showing the U.S. economy grew at the fastest rate in six years over the last three months.

Top Democratic officials were on hand for that event, including Gov. Martin O'Malley, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Reps. Elijah Cummings and John Sarbanes and City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, described by Obama as "your next mayor of Baltimore." The entire visit, made by helicopter from the White House to Fort McHenry, took less than 3 1/2 hours.


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