WASHINGTON (CN) - President Obama encouraged Democrats on Wednesday to "finish the job on health care," and chastised Republicans for gumming up the legislative system. "We said we were gonna change it," he said. "Well, here we are with a chance to change it."
Obama had a similar question and answer meeting with Republican leaders last week. There was much less sparring on health care this time. "I made it clear we will call [Republicans] out when they say they want to work with us and we extend a hand and get a fist in return," Obama said, speaking at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
Obama again criticized Republicans for complaining that they had little influence in crafting health legislation, despite efforts he says the administration took to seek a compromise and incorporate their amendments -- like the possibility of allowing insurance to be sold across state lines.
"What hasn't happened is the other side accepting our ideas," he said before taking a broad range of questions from caucus members
He spoke against automatic Republican opposition to the health bill. "If the Republicans say they can insure every American for free, which is what they claimed the other day, I want to know," he said to laughter.
And he urged Democrats not to turn away from the reform bill after a Democratic Massachusetts Senate seat was lost to a Republican. "If anybody is searching for a message from Massachusetts, the answer is not to do nothing," he said.
He told lawmakers that he recognized that after that election, "the natural political instinct is to tread lightly," but urged them to remember why they pursued pubic office, and why they decided to run as Democrats.
"Maybe I'm naïve," he said. "I'm still counting on the notion that good policy over the long term is good politics"
He acknowledged his own mistakes in pushing health care reform, saying that transparency in the legislative process was lost when he tried to push it through too quickly.
Obama repeated charges he made last week that Republicans are trying to freeze the legislative system with little regard to the bills coming through, noting that Democrats faced down more filibusters in 2009 than during the 1950s and 1960s combined. "That's 20 years of obstruction packed into just one," Obama said.
And he remarked that once the measures broke through the filibusters, they would often pass with overwhelming majority.
In another sting to Republicans, he noted that the last time the nation had a balance budget was under the Clinton presidency.
But Obama also made sure to call out Democrats. "Nice sneakers by the way," Obama said to Indiana Sen. Evan Bahy, before the otherwise well-dressed, and startled senator asked a question.
Trade with China was a popular topic during questioning. Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown asked about the United States' role in solar panel manufacturing, and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter said that the United States has lost two million jobs as a result of trade with China, which he says has violated international trade laws by establishing government subsidies. He asked whether Obama would be supportive of revoking trade agreements with it.
China has ramped up wind turbine production and has imposed limits to the import of outside wind turbines.
Obama praised China for its initiative in developing clean energy and acknowledged that China could lap the United States. "They're not a Democracy, so they don't debate," he said. "And there are no filibuster rules," he added to laughter.
But Obama expressed optimism, saying that healthy debate usually leads to better solutions, and assured Specter that while he would not revoke trade agreements, he would continue to push for a level playing field and pursue the vast Asian markets for American products.
"I don't want us to shy away from the prospects of international competition," he said, adding that an increase of one percent in exports to Asia could spark the growth of millions of American jobs.
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