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Obama takes tough questions from House GOP

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Obama-GOP meeting tense but civil
  • NEW: House Minority Leader John Boehner says the day "went very well"
  • President Obama says stimulus plan saved jobs in GOP districts
  • Obama says some Republicans acted as if health care plan was "some Bolshevik plot"
  • Obama says Democrats, Republicans both are to blame for "sour climate" on Capitol Hill

Baltimore, Maryland (CNN) -- President Obama and House GOP leaders promised greater efforts to step back from the partisan brink Friday, acknowledging that Washington's toxic political climate has made it increasingly tough to tackle major problems.

The pledge was immediately called into question, however, as the two parties repeatedly expressed sharply differing viewpoints during a rare meeting at a House Republican retreat in Baltimore.

Obama accepted an invitation from House GOP leaders to address their caucus. His speech Friday was followed by an often pointed question-and-answer session.

"House Republican leaders are grateful for [Obama's] willingness to come ... and have a frank and honest conversation," said Rep. Mike Pence, R-Indiana. "We welcome the dialogue with the president."

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The president accused Republicans of frequently mischaracterizing his policy proposals, particularly in the health care debate.

Republicans, in turn, complained the White House and congressional Democrats had ignored their ideas, locked them out of the policy-making process and unfairly labeled them as obstructionists.

"Both sides can take some blame for a sour climate on Capitol Hill," Obama said, adding that Democrats and Republicans need to be careful in choosing their rhetoric. "A ton of civility instead of slash and burn would be helpful."

The president highlighted what he said was problematic GOP rhetoric on his health care proposals. Republicans, he said, had characterized the proposed program as some "kind of Bolshevik plot."

In fact, he said that much of his plan was similar to what Republicans had proposed during the failed Clinton-era push to overhaul health care.

Both sides need to "close the gap a little bit between rhetoric and reality," the president argued. Calling his health care plan "some wild-eyed plot to impose big government in every aspect of our lives" leaves little room for bipartisan negotiation, Obama said.

The president questioned how Republicans could negotiate in good faith after using such rhetoric without exposing themselves to conservative primary challengers.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he tried to be honest about differences over administration proposals.

"I truly believe a government takeover of health care ... is the essence of their bill," Boehner said.

Obama conceded there's been a failure on his part to "try to foster better communications even if there's disagreement."

He has promised regular meetings with GOP leaders in the future. Boehner welcomed the gesture but said it is equally important for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to give Republicans a greater role in the legislative process.

Bipartisanship "isn't about taking one little Republican idea and throwing it in a 2,000-page bill," he said after Obama argued that Democratic leaders had taken GOP proposals into account in the health care debate.

"If you're really serious about building a bipartisan product ... you need to do it from the beginning."

Republicans criticized the president for failing to fulfill a promise to televise all the health care negotiations on C-SPAN. Obama called the criticism "legitimate" but noted the overwhelming majority of committee hearings on the legislation had been conducted in front of TV cameras.

After the bills had cleared the committees, however, it became a "messy process," he conceded.

"I take responsibility for not having structured it in a way where it was all taking place in one place that could be filmed," he said.

Obama and Republicans strongly criticized each other on a range of issues tied to taxes and spending.

GOP leaders said Obama's $862 billion stimulus plan had been ineffective and repeatedly urged the president to consider an across-the-board tax cut.

Obama said it would be wrong to slash taxes for the richest Americans or the banking sector in a weak economy. He also argued that the stimulus program had saved key jobs in GOP districts across the country.

"There is not a single person in here who, had it not been for what was in the stimulus package, wouldn't be going home to more teachers laid off, more firefighters laid off, more cops laid off," he said.

"The component parts of the Recovery Act are consistent" with what many Republicans say are important, he said.

The stimulus helped in terms of "rebuilding our infrastructure, tax cuts for families and businesses, and making sure that we were providing states and individuals some support when the roof was caving in."

The president said he agrees with the GOP emphasis on fiscal responsibility but hinted that Republicans could do more to help control spending, including curtailing legislative earmark requests for their own districts.

He also said he is willing to work with Republicans on the enactment of a line-item veto.

"There's not a president out there that wouldn't like that," he said.

Despite their disagreements, both sides agreed the day's dialogue was a step in the right direction.

"I hope that the conversation we begin here doesn't end here, that we can continue our dialogue in the days ahead," Obama said.

The day "went very well," Boehner replied later. "There are issues we do agree on" and Republicans will work to find "common ground."

We should "set aside perhaps the things that the president believes in that we philosophically don't, but if there is some common ground we ought to go ahead forward with those," said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia.

Friday's meeting, he said, was "the kind of discussion, frankly, that we need to have more of."