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Obama and the GOP, airing their grievances

January 29, 2010 |  3:04 pm

Obama-GOP retreat President Obama held an on-the-record Q&A session today with the House Republican caucus, and the transcript (which you can download here) provides some good insights into the frustrations on both sides.

The gathering started with a lengthy speech by Obama that, although friendly in tone, gave surprisingly little ground on any issue. It's as if he thinks he's done enough already to incorporate selected GOP ideas into his proposals, without realizing that he's just cherry-picking instead of looking for real middle ground.

Republicans come off little better, though. You can almost hear them seething, which may say more about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and her leadership style than Obama's approach to governing. The tone may be civil, but there are recriminations aplenty. The most disappointing thing is how interested the GOP seemed in refighting past battles instead of discussing what both sides say is their top priority going forward: creating jobs.

After the jump I've pasted an unedited version of the final exchange of the afternoon, which struck me as the most illuminating one. It involves Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling, Obama and Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, the ranking member of the House Budget Committee, and Hensarling came out swinging:

CONGRESSMAN HENSARLING:  I'm doing well.  Mr. President, a year ago I had an opportunity to speak to you about the national debt.  And something that you and I have in common is we both have small children.

THE PRESIDENT:  Absolutely.

CONGRESSMAN HENSARLING:  And I left that conversation really feeling your sincere commitment to ensuring that our children, our nation's children, do not inherit an unconscionable debt.  We know that under current law, that government -- the cost of government is due to grow from 20% of our economy to 40% of our economy, right about the time our children are leaving college and getting that first job.

Mr. President, shortly after that conversation a year ago, the Republicans proposed a budget that ensured that government did not grow beyond the historical standard of 20% of GDP.  It was a budget that actually froze immediately nondefense discretionary spending.  It spent $5 trillion less than ultimately what was enacted into law, and unfortunately, I believe that budget was ignored.  And since that budget was ignored, what were the old annual deficits under Republicans have now become the monthly deficits under Democrats.  The national debt has increased 30%.

Now, Mr. President, I know you believe -- and I understand the argument, and I respect the view that the spending is necessary due to the recession; many of us believe, frankly, it's part of the problem, not part of the solution.  But I understand and I respect your view.  But this is what I don't understand, Mr. President.  After that discussion, your administration proposed a budget that would triple the national debt over the next 10 years -- surely you don't believe 10 years from now we will still be mired in this recession -- and propose new entitlement spending and move the cost of government to almost 24.5% of the economy.

Now, very soon, Mr. President, you're due to submit a new budget.  And my question is --

THE PRESIDENT:  Jeb, I know there's a question in there somewhere, because you're making a whole bunch of assertions, half of which I disagree with, and I'm having to sit here listening to them.  At some point I know you're going to let me answer.  All right.

CONGRESSMAN HENSARLING:  That's the question.  You are soon to submit a new budget, Mr. President.  Will that new budget, like your old budget, triple the national debt and continue to take us down the path of increasing the cost of government to almost 25% of our economy?  That's the question, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT:  Jeb, with all due respect, I've just got to take this last question as an example of how it's very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we're going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign.

Now, look, let's talk about the budget once again, because I'll go through it with you line by line.  The fact of the matter is, is that when we came into office, the deficit was $1.3 trillion -- $1.3 [trillion.]  So when you say that suddenly I've got a monthly budget that is higher than the -- a monthly deficit that's higher than the annual deficit left by the Republicans, that's factually just not true, and you know it's not true.

And what is true is that we came in already with a $1.3-trillion deficit before I had passed any law.  What is true is we came in with $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade -- had nothing to do with anything that we had done.  It had to do with the fact that in 2000, when there was a budget surplus of $200 billion, you had a Republican administration and a Republican Congress, and we had two tax cuts that weren't paid for.

You had a prescription drug plan -- the biggest entitlement plan, by the way, in several decades -- that was passed without it being paid for.  You had two wars that were done through supplementals.  And then you had $3 trillion projected because of the lost revenue of this recession.  That's $8 trillion.

Now, we increased it by a trillion dollars because of the spending that we had to make on the stimulus.  I am happy to have any independent fact-checker out there take a look at your presentation versus mine in terms of the accuracy of what I just said.

Now, going forward, here's the deal.  I think, Paul, for example, head of the Budget Committee, has looked at the budget and has made a serious proposal.  I've read it.  I can tell you what's in it.  And there are some ideas in there that I would agree with, but there are some ideas that we should have a healthy debate about because I don't agree with them.

The major driver of our long-term liabilities, everybody here knows, is Medicare and Medicaid and our healthcare spending.  Nothing comes close.  Social Security we could probably fix the same way Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan -- sat down together and they could figure something out.  That is manageable.  Medicare and Medicaid -- massive problem down the road.  That's where -- that's going to be what our children have to worry about.

Now, Paul's approach -- and I want to be careful not simplifying this, because I know you've got a lot of detail in your plan -- but if I understand it correctly, would say we're going to provide vouchers of some sort for current Medicare recipients at the current level --

CONGRESSMAN RYAN:  No.

THE PRESIDENT:  No?

CONGRESSMAN RYAN:  People 55 and above --

THE PRESIDENT:  Fifty-five and -- well, no, I understand.  I mean, there's a grandfathering in, but just for future beneficiaries, right?  That's why I said I didn't want to -- I want to make sure that I'm not being unfair to your proposal, but I just want to point out that I've read it.  And the basic idea would be that at some point we hold Medicare cost per recipient constant as a way of making sure that that doesn't go way out of whack, and I'm sure there are some details that --

CONGRESSMAN RYAN:  We drew it as a blend of inflation and health inflation, the point of our plan is -- because Medicare, as you know, is a $38-trillion unfunded liability -- it has to be reform for younger generations because it won't exist because it's going bankrupt.  And the premise of our idea is, look, why not give people the same kind of healthcare plan we here have in Congress?  That's the kind of reform we're proposing for Medicare.  (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT:  No, I understand.  Right, right.  Well, look, as I said before, this is an entirely legitimate proposal.  The problem is twofold:  One is that depending on how it's structured, if recipients are suddenly getting a plan that has their reimbursement rates going like this, but healthcare costs are still going up like that, then over time the way we're saving money is essentially by capping what they're getting relative to their costs.

Now, I just want to point out -- and this brings me to the second problem -- when we made a very modest proposal as part of our package, our healthcare reform package, to eliminate the subsidies going to insurance companies for Medicare Advantage, we were attacked across the board, by many on your aisle, for slashing Medicare.  You remember?  We're going to start cutting benefits for seniors.  That was the story that was perpetrated out there -- scared the dickens out of a lot of seniors.

No, no, but here's my point.  If the main question is going to be what do we do about Medicare costs, any proposal that Paul makes will be painted, factually, from the perspective of those who disagree with it, as cutting benefits over the long term.  Paul, I don't think you disagree with that, that there is a political vulnerability to doing anything that tinkers with Medicare.  And that's probably the biggest savings that are obtained through Paul's plan.

And I raise that not because we shouldn't have a series discussion about it.  I raise that because we're not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterized, whatever proposals are put out there, as, well, you know, that's -- the other party is being irresponsible; the other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens; that the other party is doing X, Y, Z. 

That's why I say if we're going to frame these debates in ways that allow us to solve them, then we can't start off by figuring out, A, who's to blame; B, how can we make the American people afraid of the other side.  And unfortunately, that's how our politics works right now.  And that's how a lot of our discussion works.  That's how we start off -- every time somebody speaks in Congress, the first thing they do, they stand up and all the talking points -- I see Frank Luntz up here sitting in the front.  He's already polled it, and he said, you know, the way you're really going to -- I've done a focus group and the way we're going to really box in Obama on this one or make Pelosi look bad on that one -- I know, I like Frank, we've had conversations between Frank and I.  But that's how we operate.  It's all tactics, and it's not solving problems.

And so the question is, at what point can we have a serious conversation about Medicare and its long-term liability, or a serious question about -- a serious conversation about Social Security, or a serious conversation about budget and debt in which we're not simply trying to position ourselves politically.  That's what I'm committed to doing.  We won't agree all the time in getting it done, but I'm committed to doing it.

It's not explicit in the transcript, but you can tell from Obama's remarks that the crowd was pushing back pretty firmly at times. I give him credit, though, for not pulling out the big rhetorical guns when describing Ryan's proposal. If Obama had proposed to cap Medicare support for beneficiaries at some amount less than the rise in healthcare inflation, as Ryan has proposed, his critics would call it "rationing." That's a description that critics of Obamacare like to use, after all, and in the case of Ryan's proposal, it fits.

But the point here isn't that Ryan's idea is lousy. It's that if you declare that it's rationing, you can't have a rational debate on the merits. Instead, you have people saying, "Ryan wants to kill grandma."

That's where we are in this country, unfortunately. We're not just talking past each other on policy issues; we're screaming.

Credit: AP Photo / Charles Dharapak

-- Jon Healey

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