WASHINGTON — South Carolina Republican Gov.-elect Nikki Haley challenged President Barack Obama over his landmark health care overhaul Thursday in a candid, personal exchange in front of Cabinet members and newly elected governors from across the country.
In an exchange that White House aides didn't dispute, Obama rejected Haley's request to repeal the health care bill — but said he'd consider letting states opt out of its mandates if they ran exchange programs, banned insurance firms from denying coverage of pre-existing conditions and enabled people to pool together for better rates.
"I said the people of South Carolina and the small businesses of South Carolina cannot afford the mandated health care law they had passed," Haley said after the meeting. "I told him that our economy is already in a tough spot, and our budget cannot sustain the mandate."
With only four Democratic incoming governors joining 18 Republicans and one independent, Obama acknowledged that the Nov. 2 elections hadn't gone as he'd hoped.
"I'm a very proud Democrat, as many of you in the room are, though not as many as I expected," Obama quipped.
Reporters covered Obama's opening remarks, but they weren't allowed in the room for the unusual exchange of questions from the newly elected state executives and answers from the president at Blair House, an elegant guest house across Lafayette Square from the White House.
Haley, a rising star in the GOP following her election last month as the nation's second Indian-American governor, came to Washington for a series of meetings with national leaders. She asked two of a dozen questions the Republican-dominated governors asked Obama in the closed-door luncheon session that lasted almost an hour.
In addition to their exchange about health care, Obama rejected Haley's request that he reconsider his decision to freeze development of the Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada to receive nuclear waste from the Savannah River Site and sites in other states.
Haley, who sat next to Vice President Joe Biden at the lunch, said afterward that she'd been impressed by Obama's willingness to field questions from governors who'd won office by attacking his policies.
"I appreciated his openness and his willingness to spend time with us and to really listen to what our concerns were and to address our concerns," Haley told McClatchy. "It was respectful, it was a strong line of communication, and I was doing my job to protect the people of South Carolina."