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Obama Engages House Republicans on Economy, Health Reform, Urges Cooperation



President Barack Obama has urged Republicans in the House of Representatives to work with him on major national priorities, saying cooperation is essential to the country's economic recovery.  President's spoke to Republicans at their issues conference in Baltimore, Maryland and some of the give and take in an extraordinary exchange with his political opposition.

After the president's State of the Union Address, in which he warned of the harmful effects of divisive politics, Republicans said he had delivered rhetoric but no indications he was willing to change the direction of his policies.

Republicans have opposed his health care reform effort, asserting it would add to high deficits and heavy long-term debt.  They also point to the 10 percent national unemployment rate as proof that administration policies have not been effective.

The president told Republicans in Baltimore while he wants and values constructive debate, Americans in hard economic times do not want politics as usual in Washington: 

"I don't think they want more gridlock, I don't think they want more partisanship, I don't think they want more obstruction," said President Obama. "They didn't send us to Washington to fight each other in some sort of political steel cage match to see who comes out alive."

On Friday, President Obama was able to point to new figures showing the U.S. economy grew 5.7 percent, the second straight quarter of growth and fastest since 2003, as proof of progress in recovering from the recession. He has also proposed new tax incentives for small businesses.

He was blunt in underscoring his frustration with Republican opposition, seen in what he called "disappointing" party line votes, on his economic stimulus Congress approved early last year, and other measures.

"These are serious times and what is required by all of us, Democrats and Republicans, is to do what's right for our country, even if it's not always what is best for our politics," said Mr. Obama.

Representative Mike Pence of Indiana pressed the president on job losses, an issue of particular relevance in Baltimore where unemployment is high, and whether he would support Republican's call for major tax cuts:

"The kind of across-the-board tax relief that Republicans have advocated, that President [John] Kennedy advocated, that President Reagan advocated, and that has always been the means of stimulating broad-based economic growth," said Mike Pence.

Acknowledging again that his administration underestimated the severity of job losses, the president also noted that hundreds of thousands of jobs were already being lost when he began his presidency.

On health care, he took strong exception to Pence's assertion that he and majority Democrats have simply ignored specific Republican alternative proposals, and said this about Republican's tactic portraying health care legislation as a government takeover:

"If you were to listen to the debate, and frankly how some of you went after this bill, you would think that this thing was some Bolshevik plot," said President Obama. "I mean that's how you guys presented it."

The president also had this exchange with Tom Price of Georgia who criticized what he called numerous statements by the administration that Republicans had offered no ideas:

PRICE:  "You have repeatedly said, most recently [in] the State of the Union, that Republicans have offered no ideas and no solutions, in spite of the fact."

OBAMA:   "I don't think I said that, what I said was, in the context of health care, I remember that speech pretty well it was only two days ago, I said I welcome ideas that you might provide, I didn't say that you hadn't provided ideas, I said I welcome those ideas you will provide."

PRICE:  "Mr. President, multiple times from your administration there have come statements that Republicans have no ideas and no solutions."

It remains to be seen to what degree the president's personal appearance will move Republicans to work harder to find common ground with the president, and to shed a label applied to them in the president's first year:  the party of "no".

The president made a point of noting that Democrats too have contributed to a process in which politics has become a process of demonizing the other side.

Saying all must choose between being "politicians first or partners in progress," he said he is ready and eager to work with anyone who is ready to proceed in "partisan goodwill" but added that absent any progress in breaking partisan gridlock, he still has a responsibility to act in a way that benefits Americans. 

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