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Obama Challenges Hill

President Seeks Cooperation

Standing in the well of the House for his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Barack Obama tonight will seek to reclaim the fading aura of bipartisanship. But Obama will come armed with proposals and pitches that could further erode the comity that he seeks to make a hallmark of his administration.

Obama came into office preaching political togetherness, only to sign a $787 billion stimulus bill backed by only three Republicans on all of Capitol Hill. So as he stands tonight to make what is the practical equivalent of a State of the Union address, Obama will again extend his hand in a gesture of friendship to Republicans.

The president will undoubtedly say, as he did during a bipartisan White House fiscal responsibility summit that he hosted Monday, that Republicans and Democrats must work together on ways to begin hacking away at the massing deficit and that he wants Republican ideas on how to do it.

But Obama has sent clear signals in recent days that he has no plans to back away from campaign promises to revamp the nation’s health care system and create new sources of clean energy, both of which cost money, at least in the short term.

The White House and Democrats are putting out a new line — sure to be repeated by Obama tonight — that plans to revamp the health care system are the key to cost savings that will help reduce spending on Medicare, the mother of all budget busters.

“Health care reform is entitlement reform, because that’s where the costs are,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said during remarks to a group of reporters at the White House.

Republicans are voicing skepticism about how Obama will be able to pay for new priorities while cutting the deficit in half by 2013.

“We welcome the opportunity to listen to the president’s speech, but we’ve got a lot of questions that need to be answered,” said Antonia Ferrier, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “The proof will have to be in the budget we see on Thursday.”

Ferrier noted that while Obama wants to save money by scaling back the war in Iraq, he is going to expand the battle in Afghanistan. And she suggested it was unclear how Obama would save money on health care while expanding Medicaid and Medicare, as well as possibly seeking to increase overall coverage. She noted that Republicans have deep concerns about plans that they believe might “mandate government-run health care” and “limit consumer choice.”

Obama on Monday acknowledged Republican complaints that Democrats have excluded them from the process, but he asserted that the GOP must share in any blame for the failure of bipartisanship to bloom. Republicans failed, he suggested, to offer constructive proposals when asked and instead chose to try to wreck the process.

“On the one hand, the majority has to be inclusive — on the other hand, the minority has to be constructive,” Obama said. “The minority has got to then come up with those ideas and not just want to blow the thing up.”

Obama added, “If we’re going to be successful moving forward, it’s important for us to distinguish between legitimate policy differences and our politics.”

And Obama wasn’t above a little heated rhetoric of his own, taking unambiguous shots at the Bush administration:

“Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in Washington these past few years, we cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration, or the next generation,” he said.

Past budgets have been “an exercise in deception — a series of accounting tricks to hide the extent of our spending and the shortfalls in our revenue and hope that the American people won’t notice.”

Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), often viewed as a Democratic bridge to Republicans, said “time will tell” if it can work, noting that cooperation is “more likely in some areas than in other areas.”

But he said Obama realizes he had no choice but to try. “I think he understands that if we’re going to get legislation that solves the nation’s problems, it’s most likely to be bipartisan,” Nelson said.

Republicans say that if there is any cause for optimism on bipartisanship, it’s because there may, in the end, be no other choice.

“I think the problems are so big that the nation needs us to work together,” House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said after the White House meeting.

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