Obama presides over White House talkfest

WASHINGTON Mon Feb 23, 2009 7:15pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama gave his critics a voice at a fiscal responsibility summit on Monday where Washington did what Washington does best -- talk all day about issues.

The day-long White House talkfest allowed Obama to speak again about the need to bridge the partisan divide to the point that a fellow Democrat cited a biblical parable to explain why he was doing it.

Bringing the often warring parties together was a goal Obama had emphasized on the campaign trail last year. But he then set the issue aside in order to gain passage of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan over the opposition of Republicans.

The summit goal was a big one: Talk about ways to attack many of America's systemic problems, like rising health care costs and runaway deficit spending, and set the stage for further discussions down the road.

As is usual for these kinds of sessions, there were plenty of ideas but no overall agreement -- not that Obama was looking for consensus at an initial meeting.

"I appreciate that, while we may have different opinions, there's a renewed willingness to put some concrete ideas on the table, even on those issues that are politically tough. And that's real progress," he said.

The day ended with a remarkable session in which Obama took questions from leading members of the U.S. Congress -- a polite version of British "question time" in which the prime minister engages in back-and-forth with members of parliament.

Obama started with the man he defeated to win the presidency, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain.

A consistent advocate of cutting government spending and a leading opponent of the stimulus, McCain immediately complained about the high cost of a new fleet of presidential helicopters.

Obama declared that he agreed and, in a comment likely to send a chill down the spine of Lockheed Martin executives who fought hard for the helicopter contract, he said the present fleet of Marine One helicopters "seems perfectly adequate to me."

"Of course, I've never had a helicopter before," chuckled Obama, making clear he is still getting used to the trappings of the office he assumed on January 20. "So you know, maybe I've been deprived and I didn't know it."

McCain's spokeswoman, Brooke Buchanan, said afterward that the senator was encouraged by Obama's efforts to reach out to Republicans and hopes that he follows up on important bills coming down, including budget legislation.

The session moved Delaware Democratic Senator Tom Carper to refer to biblical scripture, citing the "Parable of the Sower" in which a sower dropped seeds into the earth.

"Some of the seeds were sown in shallow soil and nothing much came out of those, but some of the seeds were sown in fertile soil and multiplied a hundredfold," he said.

An amused Obama called himself simply a glutton for punishment but said he would keep talking to one of his main critics, Republican Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia.

"Some day, sooner or later, he's going to say, 'Boy, Obama had a good idea,'" Obama said to laughter. "It's going to happen. You watch. You watch."

(Editing by Chris Wilson)

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