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After Speaker John A. Boehner introduced President Barack Obama, and the president spoke to the House Republican Conference for 15 minutes, Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington began calling the names of the members leadership had picked to ask questions.
The seven Republicans questioned the president for almost an hour and a half on a range of topics.
•Policy Committee Chairman James Lankford, a sophomore from Oklahoma, pressed Obama first on whether he thought balancing the budget was an important goal. Lankford said a balanced budget was the “crown jewel” of former President Bill Clinton’s tenure and something he worked with House Republicans to enact. Obama, mirroring public remarks he has made recently, said he did not believe balancing the budget was an important priority. Louisiana Rep. John Fleming characterized Obama’s remarks on balancing the budget as, “It’s not necessary to do it and it’s not always advisable. His target is ... to make deficit spending 3 percent of [gross domestic product]. Once you get it there that’s as far as you need to go.”
•Rep. Candice S. Miller of Michigan, the second questioner, asked Obama why he decided to stop White House tours as a result of the sequester’s spending cuts. Obama, again echoing public comments he made in an interview with ABC News Tuesday, said the decision was not his, but the Secret Service’s, drawing an audible gasp from Republicans sitting in the room. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recently said the White House chose to halt its tours from a list of options presented by the Secret Service.
•Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, asked the third question, pressing Obama on energy policies including the Keystone XL oil pipeline. But numerous Republicans said Obama’s answer left them confused about where he stood on the matter. Oklahoma freshman Rep. Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma said Obama “talked in circles” about the pipeline. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska said he listened carefully to Obama’s answer because the issue is of particular importance to him, but said he but couldn’t decipher what Obama meant. According to Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, Obama did note that Canada would enjoy much of the tax revenue from the pipeline being constructed, a reason not to approve it.
•Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, the fourth questioner, use the opportunity to make a point about why Republicans want to enact comprehensive tax reform rather than use the closure of individual “loopholes” as bargaining chips in spending showdowns with Obama. “I just said, ‘We don’t want a piecemeal tax reform because then you don’t get the economic growth, job creation and increased wages and benefits that we want to see,’” the Ways and Means chairman recalled, adding that it was a “good exchange.” “He certainly listened and I think the point was made,” Camp said.
•The fifth questioner, Rep. Jackie Walorski, asked why Obama didn’t think the federal government needed to balance its budget the way everyday families need to. “In the state of Indiana where I’m from, Hoosiers sit around the kitchen tables and they have to make their budgets work. ... They have to make tough decisions. ... That’s why we need to have a balanced budget,” she told reporters afterward, summarizing her point. Obama disagreed, telling her “The country’s not a family,” according to a source in the room.
•Rep. Peter Roskam, the sixth questioner, asked the president a more abstract question about whether the troubles plaguing their mutual home state of Illinois show the failure of liberalism in action. Roskam “referred back to Illinois and the difficulties that Illinois is having, the collapse of the pension, [and other] problems. And he said, you know, Illinois is run by Democrats and this is a kind of Democratic template. It’s failing in Illinois, why should we want to keep doing that here?” Fleming recounted. “And [Obama’s] response, he sort of distanced himself from that, like what we do up here has nothing to do with out there.”
•Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, the final questioner, engaged in an exchange with Obama about whether Republicans can trust him, alluding to a recent National Journal report that quoted an anonymous White House official calling Obama’s outreach to Republicans a “joke.” Price also pressed Obama on when he would be issuing his budget, which is expected to be released two months beyond its statutory deadline. Price said he thought the White House was holding its budget up on purpose in order to launch political attacks. He noted that the law requires the president to go first in issuing a budget blueprint and he said that’s not a good sign for increasing the trust between the two parties. Obama said Republicans could expect the budget in a few weeks.