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President Obama engaged Friday in a rare face-to-face debate with GOP House members, sparring with them over which party is most responsible for the partisanship that grips Washington.
The president said that Republicans are eroding cooperation by telling constituents he is "doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America."
For their part, the Republicans pressed Obama on a series of issues ranging from the economy to health care, saying he and congressional Democrats had ignored their ideas. Obama said he would listen seriously to some of the Republican proposals and insisted that others had, in fact, been incorporated into Democratic measures. But, he also pushed back on other GOP proposals, citing his reasons for opposing them.
Obama used the health care debate -- which he described as "bitter and contentious" -- to underline the difficulties in changing the "tone" of the debate in Washington.
"It's not just on your side, by the way," he said. "It's on our side as well. This is part of what's happened in our politics, where we demonize the other side so much that when it comes to actually getting things done, it becomes tough to do."
Obama said that the "component parts" of the health care package were similar to those that were advocated last year by former Republican Senate Majority Leaders Howard Baker and Robert Dole, as well as onetime Democratic Majority Leader Tom Daschle, and "similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care."
"You may not agree with Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Tom -- and certainly you don't agree with Tom Daschle on much -- but that's not a radical bunch," Obama 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."
"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," he said. "I mean, the fact of the matter is is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. 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.' "
Georgia Rep. Tom Price countered by asking, "What should we tell our constituents who know that Republicans have offered positive solutions to the challenges that Americans face and yet continue to hear out of the administration that we've offered nothing?"
Obama said Republicans, on health care, needed to put on the table specific ideas that would work. "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.
Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference, pressed Obama to commit to an across-the-board tax cut, a proposal which Obama met with skepticism: "If you're calling for just across-the-board tax cuts and then, on the other hand, saying that we're somehow going to balance our budget, I'm going to want to take a look at your math and see how that that works."
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz called out Obama on his failure to make good on the promises of transparency in shaping the health care legislation. "You stood up before the American people multiple times and said you would broadcast the health care debates on C-SPAN, you didn't," Chaffetz said. "I was disappointed, and I think a lot of Americans were disappointed."
Obama said the "overwhelmingly the majority of it actually was on C-SPAN, because it was taking place in congressional hearings," but acknowledged the closed-door meetings after the committee process was finished and said, "I think it's a legitimate criticism. So on that one, I take responsibility."
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