Lines Drawn Between House GOP and Obama After Speech

Baltimore, MD — Just over an hour after he completed his address to the House Republicans at their annual retreat and departed the Harbor Place Renaissance Hotel here, Barack Obama had clearly accomplished at least one important task: he drew the proverbial "line in the sand" between himself and the largely conservative House GOPers, notably on the issue of spending and on the health care package he insists Congress must pass.

That, at least, was the opinion of Republican House Members I spoke to here shortly after the President finished his address. Although the GOP lawmakers had invited the President to address their retreat and were happy they had the chance to question him, it was obvious that there was going to be some sharp disagreement on health care, cap-and-trade, and spending measures now before Congress.

"The President is gifted, articulate, well-spoken, and charismatic," Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) told me shortly after Obama left the hotel, "and it’s also clear that the policies he articulates so well will devastate the country if they are ever enacted."

Franks felt that it was a good idea to invite the President to address the Republican House Members.  In his words, "It bodes very well for us because, especially after we got to ask question, people who watched on television have no doubt started to focus on the substance of his policies rather than his eloquence."  When voters focus on the substance of Obama’s issue positions, Franks believes, he and his fellow Republicans will gain.

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R.-Ky.) agreed.  In characterizing the exchange between Obama and his colleagues as "a clear showing of philosophical differences,"  Whitfield also noted that "there were more complaints about [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi today than there were about the President.  Republicans got 14 amendments put into the energy bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee and then the speaker got them all struck out of the bill when it went to the Rules Committee."

Thirty-year Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) told me after Obama’s remarks that the President offered "the same old things he said on the campaign trail and in the State of the Union address Wednesday evening."  As to Obama’s frequent suggestion that Republicans are "the party of nos" and calls for bipartisanship, Smith said "We showed out desire for bipartisanship when 178 Republicans [in the House] and 64 Democrats voted for the unambigous pro-life language in the Stupak-Pitts amendment to the health care bill.  But the President is against it because he doesn’t want a health care than bans any abortion funding.  He talks about one thing and does another."

Did Obama’s latest remarks rev up the conservative base for the 2010 elections, I asked Smith.

"I hope it did," he replied, "We need action."  

Rep. Devon Nunes (R-Calif.) was even blunter, when he told me "The President said a lot of nothing."  He also voiced frustration about not being able to get a question in about the economic situation in the San Joaquin Valley in California that has been caused by water being shut off by federal officials.  Unemployment in the agribusiness community is "now up to ten percent," said Nunes said.

One issue that some lawmakers were disappointed did not come up in either Obama’s remarks or the questions was the prospective move of the trial of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and other Guantanamo terrorists from New York, as the Justice Department originally wanted.  Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), a former county sheriff and career policeman, recalled his days dealing with protests against the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle and said "not only would a trial of the terrorists in New York be an even bigger circus than the WTO protests were for us but the cost is something the city would not be able to bear.  They shouldn’t be doing it and the President needs some people with real-life experience to tell him this."  

The President was invited by House Republicans to speak to them and answer questions.  He complied.  Now they and the public has an even better idea of where he stands on things and, in an election year, this will be critical.  As to whether he knows he is facing an opposition with ideas, National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Pete Sessions (Tesas) told me: "I think we tried to make it clear our ideas are alive and well since President Obama took office.  And he shouldn’t refer to us as the ‘party of no’ again."

Now it’s up to the voters to decide.