House Republicans retreated to Baltimore on Thursday night to plot their strategy for how to return to the majority. But in the near term, GOP lawmakers had another goal: to use a rare meeting with President Barack Obama on Friday to give him a piece of their minds.
Lawmakers peppered Obama with pointed questions on his administration’s handling of issues such as the economy, health care reform and the partisanship in Washington. Yet all the while — and in front of the cameras — Obama held his ground, challenging the Republican criticism and in many ways upstaging the fired-up minority on its own turf.
The live broadcast of the exchange was highly unusual — then-President George W. Bush held similar question-and answer-sessions with Members behind closed doors.
In fact, reporters were told initially that the question-and-answer portion of Obama’s visit would be closed to press, but an hour before the president was scheduled to arrive, the Republican Conference announced that the session would be open.
A spokesman for Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) said the White House made the request to open the debate late last night and House Republicans welcomed the idea.
Obama began his prepared remarks by outlining the areas where he and Republicans have common ground.
But as the question-and-answer period turned heated, Obama’s tone quickly changed. “If you were to listen to the [health care] debate and, frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you’d think that this thing was some kind of Bolshevik plot,— Obama said in response to a question by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.).
Obama told Blackburn that by choosing to frame the Democratic health care bill in such partisan terms, Republicans left themselves little if any room to negotiate.
Obama’s appearance at the Baltimore retreat, which began Thursday and ends Saturday, comes just two days after his first State of the Union address, in which he made yet another appeal for bipartisanship. House Republicans have been nearly united in their opposition to much of Obama’s agenda in his first year whether it be on health care reform, climate change or the economy.
On Friday, Obama repeatedly defended the Democrats’ $787 billion economic stimulus plan, which received no Republican votes when it passed the House a year ago. The president also called out GOP Members who had taken credit for stimulus-funded projects in their districts.
“A lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon cuttings for the same projects you voted against,— he said, alluding to what he described as a strategy of politics first, policy second.
Only Rep. Louie Gohmert (Texas) brought a prop to show his discontent with the Democratic agenda. His large placard with the words “A Declaration of Healthcare Independence— scrawled across the top, sat propped against a wall on the side of the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel ballroom.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.), who has not shied away from criticizing the president in the past, sat at her table writing furiously on a folded piece of paper as Obama spoke.
Following the president’s brief remarks, several Republicans said that his visit and the debate that followed had helped relieve some of the partisan tension.
“I think he did fine,— Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said. “That’s not easy for a president to do.—
Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.) said he was “cautiously optimistic— that Obama would make more of an effort to work with Republicans going forward.
“I’m glad he came, [he was] clearly very defensive,— Rogers said. “Sounds to me he’s going to be more willing to embrace Republican ideas,—
He added, “We’ve been disappointed in the past, so we’re cautiously optimistic that he will embrace some of our ideas.—
Blackburn said that although she felt Obama did not answer her question about health care, she was appreciative that he took the time to speak to them.
“He didn’t have to come,— she said.
Several Republican leaders said Obama’s visit proved that the real partisanship stems from Democratic leadership in Congress, not the White House.
“It was the kind of discussion, frankly, that we need to have more of,— Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said. “I’m hopeful that Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] and Leader [Steny] Hoyer [D-Md.] will follow the president’s lead and begin to open their doors and invite Republicans to participate in a discussion like we just had.—
At the same time, some Republicans — especially from the more conservative wing of the Conference — wasted no time attacking Obama for giving just another political speech.
“The President’s visit today was appreciated, but his evasion to many questions was disappointing,— Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.) said in a statement. “Since the first day of his administration, we have put forth positive solutions for all the challenges we face, and it was encouraging to hear the President finally acknowledge that fact. The President’s obfuscation on why his administration has previously denied the existence of these ideas, however, did little to respond to the concerns that we and the American people have in regard to working together.—
Obama acknowledged that the partisan bickering and finger-pointing occurs frequently on both sides, and he promised to do a better job meeting regularly with both the House Republican and Democratic leadership.
“I think both sides can take some blame for a sour climate on Capitol Hill,— he said. “What I can do maybe to help is to bring House Democrat and Republican leadership together on a more regular basis with me.—
He added, “That, I think, is a failure on my part, is to try to foster better communications [between parties] even if there is disagreement.—