WASHINGTON (CN) – President Obama faced off with Republican lawmakers Friday, debating everything from health care to climate change to the national debt, while calls from both sides to work together often eroded to expose deep partisan divisions.
Republicans at the GOP conference in Baltimore, Md., voiced several complaints about Obama, but seemed to take the biggest issue with not being incorporated into decisions on health care.
Obama maintained that he had read Republican proposals, often citing and discussing them with the group.
Obama was introduced, but then had to wait as a spiritual leader blessed the gathering and led the conference through a prayer to God, heads bowed.
Once he took the microphone, however, the calm dissipated. Obama consistently called for bipartisanship, saying that Republicans have built a campaign around their opposition to him, and that it has since been difficult to work with them.
He suggested that they oppose him even on issues they support. Acknowledging Republican opposition to the stimulus package, Obama said, “A lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon-cuttings for the same projects that you voted against.”
Obama implied that Republicans have painted themselves into a partisan corner. “You’ve given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you’ve been telling your constituents is, ‘This guy is doing all kinds of crazy stuff that’s going to destroy America.'”
He remarked that some Republicans had gone after the health reform bill like it was “some Bolshevik plot.” He said, “Just a tone of civility instead of slash and burn would be helpful.”
But Obama was adamant about rejecting the notion that he had pushed away Republicans and ignored their ideas on health care, pointing instead to a list of what he called Republican ideas – like the proposal to allow insurance to be sold across state lines, or to pool high-risk patients into a plan – to be part of the health legislation.
He said Republicans and Democrats have to be willing to adopt a bill that isn’t composed just of their ideas. “I guess all of us have to be mindful of, it can’t be all or nothing, one way or the other.”
Republican questions often took an accusatory tone.
Republicans asked about the 10 percent unemployment rate, which the Obama administration had said would hit eight percent if the Recovery Act were not passed. Obama replied that economists had underestimated the extent of damage to the economy that had been left to him. “Those job losses took place before any stimulus,” he said.
But the discussion turned to include other controversial topics.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito from resource-rich West Virginia asked Obama to reconsider his stance for renewable and clean energy sources in light of the weak economy.
Obama replied that he embraces traditional power as part of his comprehensive energy plan. But he also pointed towards the future. “Even if folks are still skeptical in some cases about climate change in our politics and in Congress, the world is not skeptical about it,” he said, and noted that the United States should take advantage of clean energy markets.
Rep. Mike Pence from Indiana proposed that Obama adopt across the board tax cuts. Obama replied that he had already cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, then added, “If you’re calling for just across-the-board tax cuts, and then on the other hand saying that we’re somehow going to balance our budget, I’m going to want to take a look at your math and see how that works.”
Rep. Jeb Hensarling from Texas asked Obama about the national debt. “You are soon to submit a new budget, Mr. President. Will that new budget, like your old budget, triple the national debt and continue to take us down the path of increasing the cost of government to almost 25 percent of our economy?”
Obama did not appear pleased. “With all due respect, I’ve just got to take this last question as an example of how it’s very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we’re going to do,” he said, “because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign.”
In answering the question, Obama laid into the Republican party for what he suggested was negligence. “What is true is we came in with $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade – had nothing to do with anything that we had done,” he said. “It had to do with the fact that in 2000, when there was a budget surplus of $200 billion, you had a Republican administration and a Republican Congress, and we had two tax cuts that weren’t paid for.”