Obama: Republicans Must Give Ground Too

(AP)
Updated 3:29 p.m. Eastern Time

President Obama made a surprise appearance at the White House press briefing Tuesday to discuss his meeting with House and Senate leaders and press the argument that bipartisanship is a two-way street.

"Bipartisanship cannot mean simply that Democrats give up everything that they believe in, find the handful of things that Republicans have been advocating for and do those things, and then we have bipartisanship," he said.

The president said that's not how things work in his marriage, although he added that "I usually give in, most of the time." He insisted in working out legislation, as in a relationship, "there's got to be some give and take."

After making his statement the president took questions from reporters, making the event his first solo White House news conference in more than six months. It was the president's fifth surprise appearance in the briefing room.

In his remarks, the president said "legitimate and genuine differences" between the parties, but also "many issues upon which we can and should agree." As examples he pointed to tax credits and more credit for small businesses, infrastructure investments and tax breaks for improving energy efficiency.

Pressing the central message of his State of the Union address, the president said "we can't afford grandstanding at the expense of actually getting something done."

"I won't hesitate to embrace a good idea from my friends in the minority party, but I also won't hesitate to condemn what I consider to be obstinacy that's rooted not in substantive disagreements but in political expedience," he said.

The president said he would consider making recess appointments if Senate Republicans do not stop holding up votes on his nominees, many of whom, he said, have wide support. He pointed to his nominee to head the General Services Administration, who was confirmed 96-0 after a nine-month delay.

"That's not advise and consent," said Mr. Obama. "That's delay and obstruct."

The president said reducing the deficit will take the work of both parties, arguing that "when the politics is put aside, the reality of our fiscal challenge is not subject to interpretation. Math is not partisan."

He also criticized Republicans for blocking a bipartisan fiscal commission after initially backing the proposal. Mr. Obama has vowed to create such a commission by executive order.

The president said there are four things that must be included in health care reform legislation: a reduction in costs, protection against insurance industry abuse, an extension of affordable coverage to tens of millions of uninsured, and changes to "get on a path of fiscal sustainability."

He noted that Anthem Blue Cross in California is raising rates on many policyholders by up to 39 percent.

"If we don't act, this is just a preview of coming attractions: Premiums will continue to rise for folks with insurance, millions more will lose their coverage altogether, our deficits will continue to grow larger," he said.

Republicans have accused the White House of being disingenuous in its push for bipartisanship and called on the administration to start from scratch on health care reform, a proposal the White House has rejected.

Pressed by a reporter on that issue, the president said "I am going to be starting from scratch in the sense that I will be open to any ideas that help promote [the] goals" outlined above.

But, he added, "I don't think the American people want to see…another year of partisan wrangling around these issues, another six months or eight months or nine months worth of hearings in every single committee in the House and the Senate in which there's a lot of posturing."

"Mitch McConnell said something very nice in the meeting about how he supports our goals on nuclear energy and clean coal technology and more drilling to increase oil production," said Mr. Obama. "Well, of course he likes that. That's part of the Republican agenda for energy, which I accept. And I'm willing to move off some of the preferences of my party in order to meet them halfway, but there's got to be some give from their side as well."

He said he was hoping to see such movement at the televised bipartisan health overhaul summit on Feb. 25. "My hope is that this doesn't end up being political theater, as I think some of you have phrased it," he said. "I want a substantive discussion." He added that he wanted to include people from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office who can answer questions at the event.

Mr. Obama referenced a comment by Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan that "you're entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts." He said he wanted to establish factual accuracy even if "some of the facts that come up are ones that make my party a little bit uncomfortable."

"If it's established that by working seriously on medical malpractice and tort reform that we can reduce some of those costs, I've said from the beginning of this debate I'd be willing to work on that," he said. "On the other hand, if I'm told that that is only a fraction of the problem and that is not the biggest driver of health care costs, then I'm also going to insist, 'OK, let's look at that as one aspect of it, but what else are we willing to do?'"

The president joked that his meeting Tuesday with Congressional leaders of both parties was so successful that Republican Mitch McConnell and Democrat Harry Reid "are out doing snow angels on the South Lawn together." He said he was encouraged that Republicans McConnell and John Boehner said they believe the status quo is not acceptable.

One reporter asked Mr. Obama about his support for nuclear power, offshore drilling and free trade, suggesting that "that's a lot of Republican stuff" and asking if Democrats will support those ideas.

"I think that on energy, there should be a bipartisan agreement that we have to take a both/and approach rather than either/or approach," said the president. He said that while he believes American should lead the world in developing clean energy sources, the traditional energy sources are also important in the short term.

"My hope is that when my Republican friends, but also Democrats, say to themselves, 'Let's be practical, and let's do both, let's not just do one or the other, let's do both,'", he said. "Over time I think the transition is going to be more and more clean energy, and over time fossil fuels become less prominent in our overall energy mix. But we've got to do both."

Asked how confident he said that a consensus along those lines could be reached, Mr. Obama responded, "Well, I am just a eternal optimist."

"All I can do is just to keep on making the argument about what's right for the country and assume that over time people, regardless of party, regardless of their particular political positions, are going to gravitate toward the truth," he said.

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