Chaffetz goes toe to toe with Obama
Utah's freshman congressman confronted the freshman president Friday, alleging he broke promises on health care, earmark reform and lobbying restrictions.
On one point President Barack Obama conceded, but he also pushed back at Rep. Jason Chaffetz, challenging the Utah Republican to help him solve the nation's problems.
The civil exchange took place in Baltimore at the House Republicans' annual retreat, where Obama tussled with his congressional rivals on policy disputes and repeatedly called for a reduction in partisan tensions.
Chaffetz, one of a handful of Republicans to question the president, said he wanted to address "this deficit of trust."
"You stood up before the American people multiple times and said you would broadcast the health care debates on C-SPAN. You didn't," he told Obama. "And I was disappointed."
Obama noted that many congressional hearings were televised and said it would have been logistically tough to organize those final negotiations before the cameras. But he also didn't duck his campaign pledge.
"It is a legitimate criticism," Obama said. "I take responsibility for not having structured it in a way where it was all taking place in one place that could be filmed."
The president took as many shots at Republicans as he received during his more than one-hour question-and-answer session. Obama said he couldn't understand why Republicans didn't support his economic stimulus proposal, which was loaded with tax cuts and help for struggling state budgets. He defended his health reform bill and energy policy. He also challenged the GOP to come up with alternatives that leading experts could endorse.
More than anything the president criticized the political tone in Washington, saying too much of what goes on is about winning elections, not about helping people, and that discussions focus on talking points, not finding common ground.
"That's how we operate; it is all tactics and it is not solving problems," Obama said. "It can't be all or nothing, one way or the other."
On two occasions, he urged Chaffetz to be more than a political obstacle.
"The challenge I would have for you as a freshman," he said, "is: 'What are you doing inside your caucus to make sure I'm not the only guy who is responsible for this stuff, so we are working together?' "
Obama later added: "If the good congressman from Utah has a particular issue on lobbying reform that he wants to work with us on, we might not be able to agree on a comprehensive package on everything but there may be some component parts we can work on."
Afterward, Chaffetz told The Salt Lake Tribune that Republicans and the president "had a good candid dialogue back and forth. You can't ask for more than that."
He said he shook Obama's hand and told him, "I'm not just here to take potshots at you. I'll work with you."
Chaffetz mentioned earmark reform as one area in which they may find agreement. "I just want the president to do what he said he's going to do, and I expect the same of myself."
During the exchange with the president, Chaffetz said Obama broke a promise to block lobbyists from taking top posts in his administration and from tackling the growth in earmarks.
Obama took issue with Chaffetz's claims.
"We didn't have earmarks in the Recovery Act. We didn't get a lot of credit for it, but there were no earmarks in that," said the president, referencing the $787 billion economic stimulus legislation.
He also noted that in his State of the Union address he called for Congress to put every earmark request online before voting on the budget bills.
"In terms of lobbyists, I can stand here unequivocally and say that there has not been an administration who was tougher in making sure lobbyists were not participating in the administration," Obama said, though he did acknowledge that he signed off on "a handful of waivers where somebody is highly skilled."