BALTIMORE — In a session that was intended to foster bipartisanship with Republicans in the House of Representatives, President Barack Obama blasted them Friday for distorting his health care plan to the point that "you'd think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot."
"I'm not suggesting we're going to agree on everything, whether it's on health care or energy," Obama said. "But if 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, what happens is you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me."
The president's blunt remarks were part of an unusual give-and-take question-and-answer session after remarks he made at the House Republicans' retreat in Baltimore
Before the session, the White House and House Republicans promised that Obama's visit would produce a frank dialogue and, hopefully, usher in a more civil, bipartisan tone, which largely has been largely absent in the past year's debates, ranging from health care to climate change to the economy.
Instead, the one-hour, 45-minute dialogue seemed to produce olive branches adorned by a few prickly thorns and to showcase just how wide and deep the divide is between the administration and other Democrats and the Republicans in Congress.
"There were different views of facts and figures," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. "But I think we had facts on our side and he (Obama) was a little on the defensive."
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said that Obama's talk showed that the president had a "willingness to dismiss reality."
"He's willing to hold himself unconstrained by the truth," Franks said.
Obama began the session warmly and joked about attending the retreat because of a need to "keep your friends close, but visit the Republican caucus every few months."
He grew stern and testy at times, however, as he refuted some of the details lawmakers cited in their questions about health care, the economic stimulus and the federal debt.
On health care, Obama said that some of the provisions in the Democratic bill had been embraced by a bipartisan group that included former Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole, R-Kan., Tom Daschle, D-N.D., and Howard Baker, R-Tenn.
"That's not a radical bunch," the president said. "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."
Obama elicited snickers from Republicans in the hotel ballroom when he proclaimed, "I am not an ideologue."
The president acknowledged problems in the crafting of the health care bill, calling it a "messy process."
Republicans got a little testy, too.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., the House Republican Conference chairman, told Obama that the president had been too "busy ignoring for 12 months" ideas from Republican lawmakers.
Obama challenged a question from Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., who asked what GOP lawmakers should tell their constituents who know that Republicans have offered positive solutions on health care, along with Price's assertion that the Republicans' health care plan would cover almost all Americans without raising taxes.
"That's just not true," the president said.
He swatted down a question from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who expressed disappointment that Obama hasn't sufficiently followed through on a campaign promise to battle congressional earmarks.
"Now the challenge, I guess, I would have for you as a freshman is, what are you doing inside your caucus to make sure I'm not the only guy who's responsible for this stuff," Obama said, calling earmark abuse a bipartisan problem, "so that we're working together?"
Obama arrived in Baltimore buoyed by new data showing that the U.S. economy grew at a better-than-expected 5.7 percent in the final three months of 2009, the fastest pace in more than six years. Friday's report followed a 2.2 percent growth rate in the third quarter, an indication that the country is out of the recession but not necessarily out of the economic woods.
House GOP leaders, who've called the stimulus package and the federal bailout of banks and American automakers failed Democratic policies, shrugged off Friday's report, saying it means nothing to Americans are struggling to find work.
"Republicans have been asking again and again, 'Where are the jobs?' " Pence said. "Reporting on Wall Street, it seems to me, makes great news. I'm glad to see my kid's college fund has come back from a year ago, that's fine; GDP numbers are welcome."
Pence noted that the nation's unemployment rate — 10 percent — has risen on Obama's watch.
The president suggested that House Republicans join him in creating more jobs by supporting a retooled White House plan that would give small businesses a $5,000 tax credit for every net new employee who's hired this calendar year. While large companies also could take the benefit, credits would be capped at $500,000.
The proposal carries a $33 billion price tag. Republican leaders called the proposal a non-starter, even before Obama showed up.
"The American people know what's necessary to get this economy moving, and that's essentially to do what Ronald Reagan did, and that is across-the-board tax relief for working families, small business and family farms," Pence said. "We need bigger ideas to deal with the heartbreaking reality of this recession."
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