Obama's spirited Q&A with House Republicans

President Obama met with House Republicans at their annual retreat in Baltimore. GOP lawmakers asked pointed questions and Obama pushed back. But overall, the meeting was civil and substantive.

Charles Dharapak/AP
President Barack Obama shakes hands with House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio as House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Va., looks on. Obama took questions from Republican lawmakers at the GOP House Issues Conference in Baltimore on Friday.

For nearly 90 minutes Friday afternoon, President Obama engaged House Republicans at their annual retreat in Baltimore, responding to pointed questions from his legislative opponents with a mixture of conciliation, confrontation, humor, and irritation.

It's not clear that many minds were changed during the session, which was opened to television cameras at White House request. Several Republican legislators’ questions were posed in the form of mini-speeches. Mr. Obama sometimes responded with a professorial recitation of the details of both Democratic and Republican proposals.

But overall, the interchange was lively, civil, and substantive. Reporters in the room said the audience murmured in polite disagreement on a few occasions but not in a disruptive way. There were no partisan outbursts. Midway through the question-and-answer session the president said, "I'm having fun."

'We need to listen to each other'

Republican House leader John Boehner invited the president to attend and introduced him by saying those in Washington "need to listen to each other."

Mr. Boehner remarked that Republicans had proposed a lot of solutions that were disregarded over the past year and had compiled them into a single booklet, titled "Better Solutions," that he handed to Obama. When the introduction was completed, the assembled Republican legislators welcomed the president with a standing ovation.

Before moving to questions, Obama opened with humor, quipping "you know what they say, keep your friends close but visit the Republican caucus every few months." He proceeded to stress his belief in the "necessity" of a loyal opposition, reciting areas – including supporting military operations in Afghanistan – where the two parties had worked together. But he also cited "disappointing" party-line votes in Congress.

During the question-and-answer session, the president was asked about the contentious subject of healthcare reform. He accused Republicans of portraying his proposals on the subject as "some Bolshevik plot." But he also acknowleged that there were "some stray cats and dogs that got in there" that "we were in the process of eliminating" and that "might have violated" his pledge not to have the government get between patients and doctors.

Closing the gap between rhetoric and reality

The president argued that "we have got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality." He asserted that by demonizing his proposals, "what happens is that you guys do not have a lot of room to negotiate with me," adding that "many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base."

In response to a question about Republican legislative ideas being "stiff-armed by [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi," the president said "both sides can take some blame for a sour climate on Capitol Hill." He said not having more communication between the legislative leaders of the major parties was "a failure on my part" and that he would try to do more on that issue this year.

The only visible flash of anger or irritation came with the final question that was posed – at some length – by Jeb Hensarling of Texas about a Republican budget proposal.

"The whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign," Obama snapped. "When you say that suddenly I have got a monthly deficit that is higher than the annual deficit left by the Republicans, that is factually just not true and you know it is not true."


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