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« How Many Dems Would Support Reconciliation? | Blog Home Page | The Week Ahead: Spotlight Illinois »

GOP To Obama: Pelosi's The Problem

BALTIMORE, Md. -- President Obama and House Republicans had a rather candid, at times combative, but overall a fascinating and rare public exchange on the successes and failures of the administration's first year in office here today. Republicans came in determined to show that they in fact have been more than the "party of no" that Democrats portray them as, while Obama called on the opposition to tone down what he deemed as hyperbolic attacks.

In the end, what emerged from the session was a clear sense of how Republicans could potentially frame this year's midterm elections. Multiple Congressmen rose to hail the president's promises and intentions but argued that he has been ill-served by an obstinate House Democratic leadership, and specifically Speaker Pelosi.

That point was driven home most effectively, perhaps, by Rep. Pete Roskam (R-Ill.), a former colleague of Obama's in the Illinois state Senate. He said he had enjoyed collaborating on tough issues with Obama in Springfield, but wondered what had changed.

"You've gotten the subtext of House Republicans that sincerely want to come and be a part of this national conversation toward solutions, but they've really been stiff-armed by Speaker Pelosi," Roskam said. "The obstacle is, frankly, the politics within the Democratic caucus."

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the GOP conference chairman, was more blunt, waving a compilation of his party's ideas, and saying to the president that the summary "is backed up by precisely the kind of detailed legislation that Speaker Pelosi and your administration have been busy ignoring for 12 months."

That tactic might be especially appropriate if the president's numbers, while not as high as the early days of his administration, remain in positive territory as November approaches. They did, though, manage to extract some more concessions from Obama that he has failed to live up to some of his promises. For instance, he again conceded that he broke a pledge to hold all health care negotiations on C-SPAN, while hedging somewhat to say doing so might have been logistically impossible.

For his part, Obama said he appreciated Republicans' show of ideas today, but that the party made any real compromise impossible by inflaming the debate with heated rhetoric, particularly on health care.

"Frankly, how some of you went after this bill, you'd think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot," Obama said. "We've got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality. 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.'"

The president also castigated Republicans for consistently criticizing a stimulus bill they voted unanimously against, and yet appearing to take credit for potentially popular projects it made possible in their home districts. And as some of the Republicans' statements wandered on, Obama showed some uncharacteristic fire.

"I've just got to take this last question as an example of how it's very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we're going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign," he told Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas).

In the end, both sides felt the session worked to their advantage. For Obama, it played as a genuine effort to follow through on this State of the Union pledge to work harder at changing the tone of Washington. For Republicans, they got a televised airing of their ideas in a largely respectful confrontation with the president.

"We've been trying to convince the public that we have alternatives, we have ideas, we have solutions, and the White House hasn't wanted to acknowledge that. The president was forced to acknowledge that today," Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told RCP after the session. "For the president to say I've read your proposal, it's a substantive proposal, that's huge for us."

The fact that the session was televised was a last-minute change. The Republican leadership that organized the event said it had always been their hope to allow reporters and cameras to show the full session, but they worked with the assumption that the White House would not allow it. Similar opportunities in the past were not open, nor was a Q&A the president had with members of his own party at their recent getaway. That changed with a late night call from the administration on Thursday.

A White House spokesman said that version of events was not entirely accurate, and said simply that they were gratified that the session was broadcast for the public's consumption.