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Obama, Paul Ryan clash in White House meeting on debt

June 01, 2011|By Peter Nicholas, Washington Bureau
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and President Obama got into a pointed exchange over GOP plans to overhaul the Medicare system, with Ryan suggesting during a private meeting at the White House that the president had engaged in "demagoguery."

Obama met with members of the House Republican caucus in the East Room on Wednesday in an attempt to bridge differences over spending and the debt limit.

Democrats have gained traction in the debate with Republicans by painting Ryan's Medicare proposal as a "voucher" program that would harm senior citizens. A TV ad put out by a liberal group depicts a man pushing an elderly wheelchair-bound woman off a cliff. The message is that Republicans wish to privatize Medicare.

Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, got a standing ovation from his colleagues during the meeting.

"Hey, I'm that Ryan guy," Ryan said at the start of his remarks at the meeting, according to a Republican aide.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) told reporters after the meeting that Ryan told Obama "we're not going to make progress on reforming Medicare unless we cut through the demagoguery on the issue."

In reply, Obama "spelled out his differences and responded with the thought that if everyone would follow that, certainly he would," Goodlatte added. "Paul's point was that as president of the United States, he can take the lead in cutting through that and having a serious discussion."

Later, speaking to reporters, Ryan was asked if he had told Obama that he hadn't shown leadership on budget issues.

"That's not exactly what I said," he responded. "I said we've got to take on this debt and if we demagogue each other at the leadership level, then we're never going to take on our debt."

Ryan went on to say that Obama has "mischaracterized" his Medicare plan when talking publicly about it. So he said he explained to Obama how the plan works, in the hopes that "in the future he won't mischaracterize it."

"I simply explained what our plan is, how it works," Ryan said, standing before a bank of cameras outside the White House. "It's been misdescribed by the president and many others. So we simply described to him what it is we’ve been proposing so that he hears from us how our proposal works."

Did Obama agree that the Republican Medicare proposal is not a voucher plan?

"He didn’t mention one way or the other," Ryan said.

Obama and the House Republicans also reportedly differed over the need for government spending.

"The president talked about a need for us to continue to -- quote-unquote -- invest. And to a lot of us that’s code for more government spending --something we can't afford right now," said Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader.

Asked about the purpose of the meeting, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said: "It was an opportunity for our members to communicate directly with the president about our ideas about how to get the economy going again -- how to create jobs and solve the debt problem facing our country.

"I told the president one more time: This is the moment. This is the window of opportunity where we can deal with this on our terms. We can work together and solve this problem. We know what the problems are. Let’s not kick the can down the road one more time."

Just before the meeting, the Treasury Department reiterated Wednesday that Aug. 2 remains the projected day the nation's debt ceiling would be breached, attempting to set in stone a drop-dead deadline as the Obama administration and congressional Republicans continue to haggle over raising the limit.

The Republican-controlled House on Tuesday rejected a $2.4-trillion increase in the debt ceiling. The measure did not include any spending cuts, which Republicans and some Democrats have insisted on. Instead, the vote was designed by House GOP leaders to send a strong message to the White House that it must compromise more on deficit reduction if it wants a debt-ceiling increase.

"What I heard from this president is he wanted to sit down and find real cuts now," Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said after the meeting. "He said there needed to be entitlement reform. And we will work with him to those ends."

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Lisa Mascaro, Jim Puzzanghera and Michael A. Memoli contributed to this report.

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