Obama defends public employees in talk to governors

12:53 PM, Feb 28, 2011   |    comments
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President Obama cautioned the nation's governors Monday not to balance their budgets on the backs of unionized state employees.

"I believe that everybody should be prepared to give up something in order to solve our budget challenges," Obama said at a White House gathering during the governors' visit to Washington.

But he said, "I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon. We need to entice the best and the brightest to public service."

That was a reference to the dispute over the state budget in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is trying to win major concessions from public sector unions -- including over their bargaining rights.

Obama said shared sacrifice is needed to balance both the state and federal budgets. "If all the pain's borne by only one group ... we're not doing the right thing," he said.

The president also warned the bipartisan group of governors that the debate in Washington over spending cuts won't end anytime soon. After the immediate decisions are made, he said, Medicare and Medicaid will have to be cut more, and tax breaks enjoyed by special-interest groups will have to be reduced.

"We can't afford to kick the can down the road any longer," Obama said. "And so the budget debate that we're having is going to be critical here in Washington."

"That's going to be a touch converstation to have, but it's one we need to have," he said.

Obama told the governors he would support legislation that allows states to come up with their own health overhauls starting in 2014, rather than 2017. That provision of the health care law passed in 2010 allows states to go their own way, as long as the same number of people gain health insurance.

"I think that's a reasonable proposal. I support it," Obama said of the measure moving up the waiver date by three years.

But the president's olive branch to governors went only so far Monday. He told them to "feel at home" at the White House, but added, "For those of you with a particular interest in the next election, I don't mean that literally."

Richard Wolf, USA TODAY

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