Obama encourages House GOP leaders to 'challenge' him at retreat

President Barack Obama on Friday encouraged House Republicans to "challenge my ideas" and continue to "stand up for your beliefs," but he pointedly criticized the caucus for playing politics on important, must-pass reforms.

Obama joined the House Republican Conference in Baltimore on Friday afternoon at the request of House GOP Leader John Boehner (Ohio). In a speech that mixed calls for bipartisanship with criticism of Republicans' legislative strategies this year, the president implored the party to renounce the "politics of no" and work with Democrats on key legislation.

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"I don't think [the American people] want more gridlock, I don't think they want more partisanship, I don't think they want more obstruction," Obama said. "They didn't send us to Washington to to fight each other in some sort of political cage match to see who comes out alive."

But Friday's forum -- which was civil, for the most part -- occasionally revealed many of the deep partisan divides that initially prompted the White House to accept House Republicans' invitation.

Throughout the televised question-and-answer session that followed Obama's speech, Republican lawmakers challenged the president on his healthcare and economic recovery plans, repeating lines that have long dominated their public critiques of the White House. But Obama was hardly passive in his replies, rendering the discussion occasionally tense.

At one point, the president charged House Republicans have left themselves with "very little room to negotiate" on key legislation currently pending action in Congress.

When Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) criticized the president for ignoring his caucus' healthcare plan, Obama replied that document -- which he said he supported, in principle -- failed to pass a "test of realism." He also fired back at Rep. Jeb. Hensarling (R-Tx.) for mischaracterizing the massive debt Republicans saddled his administration with before he took office.

But moments of consensus did emerge during the hour-long event. Obama said he would support portions of Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) debt-reduction package -- including his line-item veto proposal -- though he added he hoped it could be seriously reshaped in the coming weeks.

Nevertheless, Obama's stern tone on Friday arrives as congressional Democrats are growing increasingly apoplectic with what they describe as unfounded Republican obstructionism.

Healthcare reform remains stalled in the Senate, in part because Democratic leaders have been unable to shore up any GOP support, party members said this week. A much-anticipated, billion-dollar jobs package awaits a similar fate in the Senate, Democratic leaders also fear. 

Obama repeated those concerns on Friday, noting the party-line votes that have so far greeted important bills in both chambers of Congress "have been very disappointing."

House GOP members responded to most of the president's lines with silence, only erupting in applause when the president recognized generally important themes, including defense and job creation.

But Obama pined Republicans to remain open to other reforms, including the jobs package Democrats plan to unveil in the coming days. He said in his speech that many of those bills in no way contradict with the "ideological predispositions of this caucus."

"The only thing I don't want ... is for Washington to continue being so Washington-like," Obama said.

"We have to choose whether we'll be politicians first, or partners for progress," he added.