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Obama talks to House Republicans in Baltimore in rare, televised debate

"You've also said that you want to take a scalpel to the budget and go through it line by line. We want to give you that scalpel," said Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), the top Republican on the Budget Committee, pleading for Obama to push Democratic leaders to allow a vote on a line-item-veto proposal.

When he introduced the president, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) handed him a 27-page package of Republican proposals on health care and others issues.

White House advisers and Republicans both declared the event a success. With a series of contentious issues on the horizon -- regulatory reform, a jobs bill and the tax on banks, for starters -- Obama wanted to challenge GOP claims that he has been partisan and exclusionary and to demonstrate, as his advisers like to put it, that it "takes two to tango."

Republicans, dubbed "the party of no" by Democrats, said the session gave them a high-profile setting to offer their proposals and begin to lay a policy foundation for the campaign year. "It was the kind of discussion, frankly, we need more of," said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.).

Obama, who took an additional 15 minutes of questions and stuck around another 15 minutes to shake hands with members of the political opposition, said, "You know, I'm having fun."

The president defended his health-care proposal as "centrist" and denounced the near-unanimous opposition by Republicans, saying they had twisted his plan into a "Bolshevik plot." He offered no further details on how to move the stalled legislation.

He also did few favors for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) when rank-and-file Republicans asserted that GOP leaders were routinely ignored by Democratic leaders despite Obama's talk of bipartisanship.

"They've really been stiff-armed by Speaker Pelosi," said Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.), a friend of Obama's from their days in the Illinois Senate. "Now, I know you're not in charge of that chamber, but there really is this dynamic of, frankly, being shut out."

Obama declined to defend Pelosi. "Both sides can take some blame for a sour climate on Capitol Hill," he said. "What I can do maybe to help is to try to bring GOP and Democratic leadership together on a more regular basis with me."

Obama, who once vowed to air the health-care negotiations on C-SPAN, admitted that the closed-door dealmaking by Pelosi and Reid was a "messy process."

Republicans said they had some initial hesitation about televising the session; such gatherings by tradition are held in private by both parties. But GOP leaders had spent the past six months hectoring Obama for not living up to his C-SPAN pledge, and rejecting his request would have undercut their message. And since losing their majority in 2006, House Republicans have been an afterthought in the political calculus on Capitol Hill, making Friday's session their highest-profile meeting in years.

The oddity of the moment, however, was not lost on anyone, including Obama. His last appearance before the House GOP conference was in the basement of the Capitol last January, as he sought support for the stimulus package. Hours before that meeting, Boehner had announced his opposition and urged his troops to do the same.

Obama joked Friday that there would be more such gatherings: "You know what they say, Keep your friends close, but visit the Republican caucus every few months."

Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.

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