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Obama, GOP Confront Political Differences in Rare Debate

January 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans sparred over a range of policy issues Friday in a lively -- and rare -- no-holds-barred debate session. After a report on the exchange, Judy Woodruff talks to Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, about the legislative road ahead.
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JIM LEHRER: The president went at it with House Republicans today at a conference in Baltimore. It was a rare no-holds-barred session between the chief executive and the opposition.

We begin with excerpts.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Part of the reason I accepted your invitation to come here was because I wanted to speak with all of you, and not just to all of you. So I’m looking forward to taking your questions and having a real conversation in a few moments.

And I hope that the conversation we begin here doesn’t end here, that we can continue our dialogue in the days ahead.

I am optimistic. I know many of you individually. And the irony, I think, of our political climate right now is that, compared to other countries, the differences between the two major parties on most issues is not as big as it’s represented.

But we’ve gotten caught up in the political game in a way that’s just not healthy. It’s dividing our country in ways that are preventing us from meeting the challenges of the 21st century.

I’m hopeful that the conversation we have today can help reverse that. So thank you very much.

Thank you, John. Now I would like to open up for questions.

REP. MIKE PENCE, R-Ind.: Now, last year, about the time you met with us, unemployment was 7.5 percent in this country. Your administration and your party in Congress told us that we’d have to borrow more than $700 billion to pay for a so-called stimulus bill that was a piecemeal list of projects and boutique tax cuts, all of which was — we were told had to be passed or unemployment would go to 8 percent, as your administration said.

Well, unemployment is 10 percent now, as you well know, Mr. President. Here in Baltimore, it’s considerably higher.

Now, Republicans offered a stimulus bill at the same time. It cost half as much as the Democrat proposal in Congress. And using your economic analyst models, it would have created twice the jobs at half the cost.

The first question I would pose to you, very respectfully, Mr. President, is, would you be willing to consider embracing the kind of across-the-board tax relief that Republicans have advocated, that President Kennedy advocated, that President Reagan advocated, and that has always been the means of stimulating broad-based economic growth?

BARACK OBAMA: Well, there was a lot packed into that question there, Mike.

We can score political points on the basis of the fact that we underestimated how severe the job losses were going to be, but those job losses took place before any stimulus, whether it was the ones that you guys have proposed or the ones that we proposed, could have ever taken to effect.

The package that we put together at the beginning of the year, the truth is should have reflected, and I believe reflected what most of you would say are commonsense things.

This notion that this was a radical package is just not true. A third of them were tax cuts. And they weren’t — when you say they were boutique tax cuts, Mike, 95 percent of working Americans got tax cuts.

And the notion that I would somehow resist doing something that cost half as much, but would produce twice as many jobs — why would I resist that? I wouldn’t. I mean, that’s my point, is that — I am not an ideologue. I’m not. It doesn’t make sense if somebody could tell me, “You could do this cheaper and get increased results,” that I would say, “Great.”

The problem is, I couldn’t find credible economists who would back up the claims that you just made.

MAN: Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee.

REP. MARSHA BLACKBURN, R-Tenn.: Thank you, Mr. President.

And thank you for acknowledging that we have ideas on health care., because, indeed, we do have ideas. We’ve got plans to lower cost, to change purchasing models, address medical liability, insurance accountability, chronic and preexisting conditions, and access to affordable care for those with those conditions, insurance portability, expanded access, but not doing it with creating more government, more bureaucracy and more cost for the American taxpayer.

So my question to you is, when will we look forward to starting anew and sitting down with you to put all of these ideas on the table, to look at these lessons learned, to benefit from that experience, and to produce a product that is going to reduce government interference, reduce cost and be fair to the American taxpayer?

BARACK OBAMA: If you look at the basic proposal that we put forward, it has an exchange so that businesses and the self-employed can buy into a pool and can get bargaining power the same way big companies do, the insurance reforms that I have already discussed, making sure that there’s choice and competition for those who don’t have health insurance.

The component parts of this thing are pretty similar to what Howard Baker, Bob Dole, and Tom Daschle proposed at the beginning of this debate last year.

Now, you may not agree with Bob Dole and Howard Baker and Tom — certainly, you don’t agree with Tom Daschle on much. But that’s not a radical bunch.

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. No, I mean, that’s how you guys — that’s how you guys presented it. That — and so I’m thinking to myself, well, how is it that a plan that is pretty centrist… No — no, look, I mean, I’m just saying — I know you guys disagree, but if you look at the facts of this bill, most independent observers would say this is actually what many Republicans — it’s similar to what many Republicans proposed to Bill Clinton when he was doing his debate on health care.

So, all I’m saying is we’ve got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality.

REP. PETER ROSKAM, R-Ill.: Mr. President, I heard echoes today of the state senator that I served with in Springfield, and there was an attribute and a characteristic that you had that I think served you well there.

One of the keys was, you rolled your sleeves up, you worked with the other party, and, ultimately, you were able to make the deal.

Now, here’s — here’s an observation. Over the past year, in my view, that attribute hasn’t been in full bloom. And, by that, I mean, 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 have really been stiff-armed by Speaker Pelosi.

Now, I know you’re not in charge of that chamber, but there really is this dynamic of, frankly, being shut out.

So here’s the question. Moving forward, I think all of us want to hit the reset button on 2009. How do we move forward?

BARACK OBAMA: I mean, we’ve got to be careful about what we say about each other sometimes, because it boxes us in, in ways that makes it difficult for us to work together, because our constituents start believing us.

They don’t know sometimes this is just politics, what you guys, you know, or folks on my side, do sometimes. So, just a tone of civility instead of slash-and-burn would be helpful.

All right, thank you, everybody. God bless you. God bless the United States of America.

MAN: Let’s thank the president of the United States.

BARACK OBAMA: Thank you, everybody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: more on the president’s appearance before House Republicans, someone who was there for it all, Texas Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling.

Congressman Hensarling, thanks for being with us and for standing out in the cold.

What did you take away from this unusual session?

REP. JEB HENSARLING, R-Texas: Well, you’re right, Judy. It was an unusual session.

And, listen, the president deserves great credit for accepting our invitation. I’m glad that he did it. And I’m hoping something good will come out of it. We have never seen any kind of outreach from Speaker Pelosi to attempt to work on a bipartisan basis.

I hope we see one out of the president. There are some areas maybe we can work on. But I got to tell you, the American people want accountability in government.

And regardless of whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, today, I think, was at least a chapter in accountability. I mean, after things like the Louisiana Purchase and the Cornhusker kickback, people want to see some accountability. They saw it today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You asked him a question about the budget he’s going to submit next week. And he took issue with your characterization of how the deficit has gotten to where it is. Did you change your perception after you heard what he said?

REP. JEB HENSARLING: Well, no. I mean, listen, I still like and admire our president. Don’t know how much he likes me.

Facts are pesky things. And the fact is, a year ago, he proposed a budget that was going to almost triple the national debt in 10 years. He proposed a budget that, over 10 years, would increase government from roughly 20 percent of our economy to 24.5 percent.

And I asked him, was he going to present this in the next budget? Unfortunately, the president chose not to answer the question. He questioned me on some of my facts. I stand by my facts. They’re posted on my Web site. Anybody can see them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he did challenge you. You’re right. He went back and described how he had inherited a lot of this deficit.

But, without getting into that, what about this point that he made on health care, that this plan, in his view, was, really, he said a pretty centrist plan, that Bob Dole, Howard Baker were for something like this a year ago? And, he said, in effect, you had Republicans calling it a Bolshevik plot.

REP. JEB HENSARLING: Well, I think the president used a little overheated rhetoric there.

And I just don’t believe people in America believe this is a centrist plan. I think, if you do any kind of honest budget accounting, you would have to say it’s closer to a $2 trillion plan. I think, ultimately, you have government defining costs. You have government defining benefits. It’s just not a centrist plan.

And, in some respects, after three elections in a row, it’s pretty clear the American people don’t believe it, with all due respect to the president. Now, listen, I agree with the president. We still need health care reform, but the American people are mainly concerned, can we make it affordable, can we make it portable?

Republicans have put a plan on the table that would help do that. If — hopefully, we can work with the president — we certainly haven’t been able to work with the speaker — and work out a few of these solutions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the president said he has taken on board a number of Republican ideas. And he ticked off what they are in the health care plan and in the stimulus package last year.

Do you…

REP. JEB HENSARLING: Well, number one, Judy, I respectfully disagree with some of the president’s characterizations.

Number one, you will find nothing in there of any substance having to do with liability reform, medical liability reform. He said — his people say it might save 1 percent to 2 percent. Frankly, most of the studies I say — will say 8 percent to 10 percent.

As far as any kind of effective means to buy health insurance across state lines, again, with all due respect, I don’t quite see it in the president’s plan, not to say that he’s totally wrong. There are a handful of ideas. But, at its core essence, it is a huge, expensive, draconian package that has government taking over a huge portion, and people just don’t consider it centrist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about his point, Congressman, essentially that Republicans have to understand that neither side can get 100 percent or even 80 percent of what they want; there has to be give on both sides?

He was really saying, Republicans haven’t been prepared to give anything.

REP. JEB HENSARLING: Well, Judy, with all due respect, we haven’t had an opportunity because we haven’t been invited into the negotiations.

I’m the second-ranking Republican, the second most senior Republican on the House Budget Committee. I can assure you I haven’t been brought in on all of the negotiations of the $2 trillion health care plan, wasn’t brought in to any of the negotiations on the budget.

Listen, the president is right, but I’m afraid that many on his side of the aisle believe that bipartisanship is: Here’s our legislation. And, if you don’t vote for it, then you’re against it.

And I think one thing that came out today, whether people disagree with the Republicans, they know we have put forth alternative plans. And that was on display for the American people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Did you believe him when he said at one point, “I’m not an ideologue,” and his whole point that he said, “I want to work with you”?

REP. JEB HENSARLING: Well, listen, we want to work with the president. Again, I give him more credit than the speaker, who hasn’t shown any indication to work with us.

I’m not going to criticize the president. Clearly, he has strong philosophical beliefs, as do we, but, still, hopefully there will be some common ground. But, again, facts are facts. And we still have a budget plan that he submitted on the table. I hope — I hope, next week, we will see something different. But we are drowning in debts and deficit. We had a $1.2 trillion stimulus plan, and, unfortunately, we’re still mired in double-digit unemployment. Those are pesky facts.

I hope the president will realize that, ultimately, that’s not the way to create jobs. And I’m heartened to hear some of the things he has to say about small-business tax relief. Willing to sit down, hopeful, hopeful we can sit down at the table and empower those small business people, who are truly the job engine in America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, finally, where do you see potential areas where you can work with the president?

REP. JEB HENSARLING: Well, I think I just mentioned one. And that has to do with tax relief for small business. As always, the devil’s in the details. I would like to see that.

The president, in his State of the Union, mentioned he would like to see free-trade agreements passed. I think those will create jobs. I think Republicans will work with him on that. But we’re not going to work with him on the nationalization of the health care system. We’re not going to work with him to plunge the nation in to deeper debt.

But, on items where there is some common ground, this isn’t about saying no. This is finding common ground to help create jobs in America and ensure we don’t leave unconscionable, immoral debt upon our children and grandchildren.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas, we thank you very much.

REP. JEB HENSARLING: Thank you.