President Obama held a lively give and take with the loyal opposition this afternoon, as the House Republican Conference hosted him at its retreat in Baltimore.
The goal: a serious discussion of issues and how to forge bipartisan consensus going forward –if at all possible.
But each side had its own goal as well. The President had a list of complaints about how Republicans had governed and Republicans wanted to push back on the Obama administration’s assertion that it was a party of no ideas.
“Mr. President, multiple times from your administration there have come statements that Republicans have no ideas and no solutions,” Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., griped., “in spite of that fact that we've offered, as demonstrated today, positive solutions to all of the challenges we face, including energy and the economy and health care.”
The president complained that “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. That's because that's not how democracy works.”
At times the meeting seemed like the annual Airing of Grievances from the holiday of Festivus.
“The way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives,” President Obama said of health care reform. “What happens is you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me.”
For “many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party,” the president said. “You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, "This guy's doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America."
At other times, the remarks seemed more promising.
“I hope that the conversation we begin here doesn't end here, that we can continue our dialogue in the days ahead,” the president said. “It's important to me that we do so; it's important to you, I think, that we do so. But, most importantly, it's important to the American people that we do so.”
Mr. Obama is said to be truly distressed with the continued dysfunctionality of politics in the nation’s capital, and the disillusionment of many of his supporters, and has accepted some of the blame for that – specifically in terms of his broken campaign promise to allow C-SPAN cameras to film health care negotiations.
“The only thing I don't want — and here I am listening to the American people, and I think they don't want either — is for Washington to continue being so Washington-like,” the president told House Republicans today. “I don't believe that the American people want us to focus on our job security. They want us to focus on their job security… They sent us to Washington to work together, to get things done, and to solve the problems that they're grappling with every single day.”
You’re Not Bipartisan, I’m Bipartisan
The president said he had incorporated many Republican ideas in his proposals: creating a high-risk pool for uninsured Americans with preexisting conditions, allowing health insurance companies to sell coverage across state lines, creating pools where self-employed and small businesses could buy insurance, allowing children to remain covered on their parents' insurance until they are 25 or 26.
“I even talked about an issue that has been a holy grail for a lot of you, which was tort reform, and said that I'd be willing to work together as part of a comprehensive package to deal with it,” he said. “I just didn't get a lot of nibbles.”
The President clearly doesn’t think the other side is showing the same spirit. He began his remarks by chastising Republicans for not voting for items he believes they support and only opposed for sheer political reasons, such as the stimulus bill, which Republicans voted against unanimously.
“I didn't understand then, and I still don't understand, why we got opposition in this caucus for almost $300 billion in badly needed tax cuts for the American people or COBRA coverage to help Americans who'd lost jobs in this recession to keep the health insurance that they desperately needed, or opposition to putting Americans to work laying broadband and rebuilding roads and bridges and breaking ground on new construction projects,” he said.
Looking forward, the president said that he had proposed earlier in the day tax credits for small businesses. One, that he said would cut taxes for more than one million small businesses, would provide employers with a “tax credit of up to $5,000 for every employee they add in 2010. They'd get a tax break for increases in wages as well.” He said he also wants to “eliminate the capital gains tax for small business investment and take some of the bailout money the Wall Street banks have returned and used it to help community banks start lending to small businesses again.”
“There’s nothing in that proposal that runs contrary to the ideological predispositions of this caucus,” the president said. “The question is, what's going to keep us from getting this done?”
At another point he said, “you may not support our overall jobs package, but if you look at the tax credit that we're proposing for small businesses right now, it is consistent with a lot of what you guys have said in the past. And just the fact that it's my administration that's proposing it shouldn't prevent you from supporting it.”
Festivus Comes to Baltimore
But prospects for GOP support for the hiring tax credit didn’t seem strong when Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., referred to it as “a tax credit which was last promoted by President Jimmy Carter.”
Pence, the leader of the House Republican conference, told ABC News earlier this week that he decided not to challenge Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., partly because he’s convinced that Republicans will regain control of the House this November.
Today he dismissed the stimulus package as a “piecemeal list of projects and boutique tax cuts” and asked the president if he would be willing to consider “the kind of across-the-board tax relief that Republicans have advocated, that President Kennedy advocated, that President Reagan advocated, and that has always been the means of stimulating broad-based economic growth?”
President Obama said he’d need to see specifically what the proposal would entail. “What you may consider across-the-board tax cuts could be, for example, greater tax cuts for people who are making a billion dollars,” he said. “I may not agree to a tax cut for Warren Buffett. You may be calling for an across-the-board tax cut for the banking industry right now. I may not agree to that.”
The president continued to press the point that the stimulus bill contained “common sense” measures. “A third of them were tax cuts. And they weren't — when you say they were boutique tax cuts, Mike, 95 percent of working Americans got tax cuts. Small businesses got tax cuts. Large businesses got help in terms of their depreciation schedules. I mean, it was a pretty conventional list of tax cuts.”
As for the infrastructure spending, the president said “a lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon cuttings for the same projects that you voted against.”
The president dismissed the House GOP stimulus proposal by saying “I couldn't find credible economists who would back up the claims” Pence made that it would create “twice the jobs at half the cost.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, challenged the president on his expressed concern during the State of the Union address for a “deficit of trust” given campaign promises the president had made.
“When you stood up before the American people multiple times and said you would broadcast the health care debates on C-SPAN, you didn't,” said Chaffetz, a freshman. “I was disappointed, and I think a lot of Americans were disappointed.”
Chaffetz also told the president, “you said you weren't going to allow lobbyists in the senior-most positions within your administration, and yet you did… You said you'd go line by line through the…health care bill… And when you said in the House of Representatives that you were going to tackle earmarks, and, in fact, you didn't want to have any earmarks in any of your bills, I jumped up out of my seat and applauded you. But it didn't happen.”
The president conceded that once the bill “got through the committee process and there were now a series of meetings taking place all over the Capitol trying to figure out how to get the thing together, that was a messy process. And I take responsibility for not having structured it in a way where it was all taking place in one place that could be filmed.”
But the president said Chaffetz’s point was “a legitimate criticism. So on that one, I take responsibility.”
The president said that he had tried to push back on earmarks but he “was confronted at the beginning of my term with an omnibus package that did have a lot of earmarks from Republicans and Democrats, and a lot of people in this chamber. And the question was, was I going to have a big budget fight at a time when I was still trying to figure out whether or not the financial system was melting down and we had to make a whole bunch of emergency decisions about the economy. So what I said was let's keep them to a minimum, but I couldn't excise them all.”
He challenged Chaffetz to consider what he is “doing inside your caucus to make sure that I'm not the only guy who's responsible for this stuff, so that we're working together. Because this is going to be a process.”
The president defended his stance on lobbyists, saying he could “stand here unequivocally and say that there has not been an administration who was tougher on making sure that lobbyists weren't participating in the administration than any administration that's come before us….There have been a handful of waivers where somebody is highly skilled; for example, a doctor who ran Tobacco-Free Kids technically is a registered lobbyist, on the other hand, has more expertise than anybody in figuring out how kids don't get hooked on cigarettes.”
Generally, the president said, “we've been very consistent on that front.”
The president also took issue with comments from Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, who said the Obama administration had increased domestic and discretionary spending by 84%.
“Most of the increases in this year's budget, this past year's budget, were not as a consequence of policies that we initiated,” the president said, “but instead were built in as a consequence of the automatic stabilizers that kick in because of this enormous recession.”
Ryan said, “you've also said that you want to take a scalpel to the budget and go through it line by line. We want to give you that scalpel. I have a proposal with my home state Senator, Russ Feingold, a bipartisan proposal, to create a constitutional version of the line- item veto.
“I think there's not a president out there that wouldn't love to have it,” the president said. “This is an area where we can have a serious conversation.”
At another point, pushing for “a tone of civility instead of slash-and-burn,” the president said the media doesn’t report on the positive. “I don’t a lot of credit if I say, ‘You know, I think Paul Ryan's a pretty sincere guy and has a beautiful family.’ Nobody's going to run that in the newspapers, right?”
The crowd laughed.
“And by the way, in case he's going to get a Republican challenge, I didn't mean it,” the president joked. Turning to Ryan, he said, “I don't want to — don't want to hurt you, man.”
“Thank You For Acknowledging We Have Ideas”
With a note of sarcasm, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., thanked the president for “acknowledging that we have ideas on health care.”
“I've gotten many of your ideas,” he replied. “Some of the ideas we have embraced and are in our (health care reform) package. Some of them are embraced with caveats.”
As one example, the president noted the GOP proposal of allowing insurance companies to sell across state lines. “We actually include that as part of our approach,” he said. “But the caveat is we've got to do so with some minimum standards, because otherwise what happens is that you could have insurance companies circumvent a whole bunch of state regulations about, you know, basic benefits or what have you; making sure that a woman is able to get mammograms as part of preventive care, for example.”
The president acknowledged that “some stray cats and dogs” got into the health care reform package that he claimed “we were in the process of eliminating.” Some provisions may have violated his early pledge that “if you want to keep the health insurance you've got, you can keep it” and “that you're not going to have anybody getting in between you and your doctor in your decision-making.”
But beyond that, the president said, the bill resembled the principles outlined by former GOP Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker and Bob Dole “but if you were to listen to the debate, and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you'd think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot.”
The reality is different, he said. “If you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say this is actually” what the President was proposing is “similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care. So all I'm saying is we've got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality.”
On that note, the president also took issue with Republican solutions.
“I've actually read your bills,” the president said, arguing that GOP claims on savings from tort reform or allowing multi-state insurance are not matched by experts. “I am absolutely committed to working with you on these issues. But it can't just be political assertions that aren't substantiated when it comes to the actual details of policy, because otherwise we're going to be selling the American people a bill of goods,” he said.
“The easiest thing for me to do on the health care debate would have been to tell people that, ‘What you're going to get is guaranteed health insurance, lower your costs, all the insurance reforms, we're going to lower the cost of Medicare and Medicaid, and it won't cost anybody anything,’” he said. “That's great politics. It's just not true.”
The president later contrasted Ryan with Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who criticized the president for proposing a budget “that would triple the national debt over the next 10 years. Surely you don't believe 10 years from now we will still be mired in this recession. It proposed new entitlement spending and moved the — the cost of government to almost 24.5 percent of the economy.”
Mistakenly calling Hensarling “Jim,” the president said, “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, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign.”
Detailing how the Bush administration created $8 trillion in debt, the president said Ryan had “looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal. I've read it. I can tell you what's in it. And there are some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there are some ideas that we should have a healthy debate about, because I don't agree with them.”
One of the Ryan’s proposals would impact Medicare, the president said. Which makes sense since “the major driver of our long-term liabilities, everybody here knows, is Medicare and Medicaid and our health care spending.”
The president asserted that “any proposal that Paul makes will be painted factually from the perspective of those who disagree with it as cutting benefits over the long term…There is a political vulnerability to doing anything that tinkers with Medicare. And that's probably the biggest savings that are obtained through Paul's plan.”
When the president and Democrats “made a very modest proposal as part of our package — our health care reform package to eliminate the subsidies going to insurance companies for Medicare Advantage, we were attacked across the board by many on your aisle for slashing Medicare. You remember? We're ‘going to start cutting benefits for seniors.’ That was the story that was perpetrated out there; scared the dickens out of a lot of seniors.”
Said the president, “if we're going to frame these debates in ways that allow us to solve them, then we can't start off by figuring out, A, who's to blame; B, how can we make the American people afraid of the other side.”