- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 10, 2010

President Obama Tuesday firmly rejected Republican calls to scrap his health care overhaul plan and start again from scratch, making clear that, despite his recent calls for bipartisanship, the GOP congressional minority will still be required to swallow things it doesn’t like in the negotiations to come.

In his first news conference since July, Mr. Obama said his definition of bipartisanship does not mean settling on only ideas to which both parties can agree, but rather, pursuing his agenda while trying to incorporate Republican ideas as best he can.

“Bipartisanship can’t be that I agree to all of the things that they believe in or want and they agree to none of the things I believe in or want, and that’s the price of bipartisanship, right? But that’s sometimes the way it gets presented,” Mr. Obama told reporters during an unscheduled appearance in the White House briefing room.

“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.

The president’s relatively brief appearance was his first extended meeting with the White House press corps since July. He talked about the jobs bill and the growing confrontation over Iran’s suspect nuclear program.

Both parties have touted the need for bipartisanship after the election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts last month shattered Democrats’ 60-vote filibuster-proof majority, but what constitutes bipartisanship has, like the policies themselves, been up for debate.

Citing his support for Republican energy priorities such as nuclear power and clean coal, Mr. Obama said that he has done his share to accommodate members of the minority party and the time had come for them to reciprocate.

After lengthy, messy debates, the Senate and House late last year passed differing version of the health care bill, but Mr. Brown’s election has left Democratic leaders struggling on how to move forward.

Mr. Obama said Americans were rightly miffed by the process by which the bill was written, but said he’s not going to dismiss months of negotiations, hearings and deals that have taken lawmakers this far.

“What I will not do, what I don’t think makes sense and I don’t think the American people want to see, would be 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,” he said.

Mr. Obama sought to prepare the ground for a bipartisan, televised summit on health care he will convene Feb. 25, a gathering at which he said he hopes to see a “substantive discussion” rather than “political theater.”

But Republican leaders, who met with Mr. Obama Tuesday morning to discuss jobs and the economy, are wary of the meeting. They argue that Americans have already rejected Democratic health bills and true bipartisanship would mean starting the process over.

“It is in the interest of the minority in the Congress to reach out, and we have continued to,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.

“But what we want to say is this: we’re not interested in a dog-and-pony show to trumpet failed bills that, in fact, the Democrats can’t even pass right now. We’re not interested in that because the American people aren’t, either,” he said.

Bipartisanship on Capitol Hill has been elusive, if not absent, in Mr. Obama’s first year in office, as the House and Senate Democratic majorities have largely written the major bills and Republicans have opposed every major piece of his agenda, often unanimously. But the president said he’s confident there’s a way forward on health care, as well as on issues such as the economy and financial reform.

For example, Mr. Obama said eliminating the capital gains tax on small businesses should be a policy that enjoys bipartisan support as Congress considers legislation aimed at spurring job growth.

“I think that it’s realistic for us to get a package moving quickly that may not include all the things I think need to be done, and it may be that that first package builds some trust and confidence that Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill can work together, and then we move on to the next aspect of the package,” he said.

Mr. Obama has laid out several proposals in recent weeks that he’d like to see in a final jobs bill, such as a new $30 billion fund to encourage community banks to lend to small businesses and a tax credit for firms that hire new workers. The House passed a $154 billion package in December, but the Senate has yet to craft a final version of its own.

Republicans, who continue to attack last year’s $787 billion stimulus package as ineffective, have rejected the additional spending and Mr. Obama’s idea to use money from the $700 billion Wall Street bailout fund to aid small businesses.

But GOP leaders have offered to work with Mr. Obama on several items he put forth in the State of the Union address, such as ratifying trade deals, expanding offshore oil and gas exploration, developing clean-coal technology and increasing nuclear energy sources.

“These are areas where I think there could be pretty broad, bipartisan support to go forward on a collaborative basis,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, adding that the Senate should pursue the policies as stand-alone measures instead of rolled into one big bill.

Mr. Obama also took an opportunity to plug legislation that would overhaul the financial regulatory system - yet another measure that has passed the House but stalled in the Senate. He said that ending bipartisan sniping could have a beneficial effect on the economy as a whole.

“The sooner the business community has a sense that we’ve got our act together here in Washington and can move forward on big, serious issues in a substantive way, without a lot of posturing and partisan wrangling, I think the better off the entire country’s going to be,” the president said.

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