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

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 30, 2010

BALTIMORE -- President Obama offered a muscular defense of his first year in office Friday in the most hostile of territories -- a gathering of House Republicans, who engaged him in a pointed debate that had moments of both tense drama and bipartisan comity over the stark policy differences that separate the two sides.

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In an unusual session, Obama repeatedly accused Republicans of seeking political gain at his expense by opposing fiscal policies they had previously supported. But he also reached out for their help as he recalibrates his 2010 agenda to focus intensely on the economy, and he provided House Republicans -- a group he basically ignored for the past year-- with a 90-minute, nationally televised platform to air their policy prescriptions for the nation.

Other presidents have trekked to the opposing party's premier annual policy event. But this encounter came with an added twist: an eleventh-hour request from the White House to allow the usually closed-door, question-and-answer session to be shown live on cable news networks.

What resulted was an unprecedented public debate between the president and a group of lawmakers who have effectively opposed nearly every move he has made. The give-and-take more closely resembled Great Britain's Question Time -- in which members of Parliament question the prime minister -- than anything in congressional history.

Eight Republicans, some addressing Obama for the first time, queried him on topics that ranged from the $12.4 trillion national debt to trade policy to lobbyist access to the White House. Some exchanges were cordial, but many were sharp, with Obama telling the Republicans that he had read their proposals but that economists had found them lacking.

"Bipartisanship, not for its own sake, but to solve problems, that's what our constituents, the American people, need from us right now," Obama said, appearing before a retreat of the 178-member House GOP conference at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel.

After Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) spent several minutes blaming Obama for the increase in the federal deficit to $1.35 trillion, the president interrupted and asked, "You're going to let me answer?"

"The whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign," Obama told him. "That's not true, and you know it's not true."

Republicans did not hold back either. Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.) insisted that the president had been "busy ignoring" the GOP's ideas.

Obama's rebuttal -- "I'm not an ideologue" -- drew laughter and chatter from Republicans, many of whom consider him the most liberal president ever.

Obama gave a fierce defense of the $787 billion stimulus package signed into law in February without a single House Republican vote. He angrily told Pence, the No. 3 GOP House leader, who served as the event's moderator, that 2 million jobs were lost from December 2008 through February 2009, long before the Recovery Act took affect. "I'm assuming you're not faulting my policies for that," Obama said.

Obama's economic standing was boosted by Friday morning's announcement of a big increase in the gross domestic product. But Republicans repeatedly focused on what they consider his support of big government programs.

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