WASHINGTON -- Gov. Martin O'Malley sat tight-lipped through a White House meeting with President Bush yesterday and later criticized the president, saying he spent more time defending the administration's Iraq policy than addressing concerns about health care and immigration raised by the nation's governors.
O'Malley, who has been attending his first meeting of the National Governors Association since being elected governor, participated in two hours of morning meetings with Bush Cabinet officials, followed by a half-hour session with the president. Only the association's chairwoman, Gov. Janet Napolitano, an Arizona Democrat; and the vice chairman, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican from Minnesota, questioned Bush directly.
"President Bush answered each of them, and went back to vamping for about 15 or 20 minutes as to why he is exactly right in what he is doing with the decisions he has made to get us into Iraq and to escalate the war," O'Malley said. "What is the word we use now? Surge?"
O'Malley, a Democrat and former Baltimore mayor, criticized the Republican administration before becoming governor last month.
During remarks at a fundraiser for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004, O'Malley drew rebukes after he said, "As mayor of the city, I was very, very worried about al-Qaida and still am. But I'm even more worried about the actions and inactions of the Bush administration."
In February 2005, O'Malley said Bush's budget was an attack on U.S. cities similar to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
O'Malley did thank the White House, however, for allowing him to take his daughter, Grace, to a state dinner Sunday night. His wife, Katie Curran O'Malley, did not attend.
The governors meeting, which ends today, has focused on education, immigration and, in particular, health care. A program that combines federal and state money to provide health insurance for children will expire this year, and governors want the program extended. Napolitano, Pawlenty and others sent the president a letter yesterday requesting also that more money be available for states that will overspend their allotments this year.
Bush has proposed reducing the scope of the program so that it concentrates on only the neediest children - those in families earning two times the federal poverty level. In Maryland, O'Malley is pushing for legislation that goes in the opposite direction, covering children in families that earn four times the poverty level.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday that the president's health care plan gives states money from a different source - a proposal called Affordable Choices - to continue covering wealthier children. "We believe in flexibility, too," Snow said.
But many health care analysts say the president's budget plan would remove children from the health insurance program because it contains insufficient funds.
The topic came up at the White House, but "they seem pretty rigid, and they seem pretty inflexible," O'Malley said.
In addition to defending his decisions on Iraq, Bush talked about immigration, the No Child Left Behind education law and alternative fuels.