Health Summit Fails To Narrow Partisan Divide

Republicans looked President Obama in the eye and offered strong objections to a health care bill. The partisan divide on health care was played out at the White House summit Thursday. Obama and Democratic congressional leaders pushed their broad health care overhaul, and Republicans insisted on the "step by step" approach.

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This television viewer will admit it right now: A bunch of politicians sat around a table and talked about health care for hours, and it was just plain interesting. Republicans looked the president in the eye and offered strong objections to a health care bill. President Obama looked back and answered point after point. He argued that Republicans themselves in the past supported many provisions in a bill they say now should be scrapped. It was compelling, even though the two parties ended about where they started.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: When the marathon session began, the president said he wasn't sure the differences between the two parties could be bridged.

President BARACK OBAMA: It may be that at the end of the day, we come out of here and everybody says, well, you know, we have some honest disagreements. People are sincere in wanting to help, but they've got different ideas about how to do it, and we can't bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans on this.

LIASSON: In the end, the president's prediction was proven correct. He had said he didn't want political theater, but that's what he got, as the two sides essentially re-litigated the health care debate they've had for the last year. The president pointed to polls showing the public supports individual elements of his plan. Republicans confidently pointed to surveys showing the overall plan is unpopular. Here's House Republican Whip Eric Cantor.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia; House Republican Whip): We don't care for this bill. I think you know that. The American people don't care for the bill. And I think that we've demonstrated, you know, in the polling that they don't. But there is a reason why we all voted no. When you start to mandate that everyone in this country have insurance and you lay on top of that now the mandates what we all would like to see in a perfect world, there are consequences to that. We just can't afford this.

LIASSON: The fundamental philosophical differences between the parties on health care were still very large, said Republican Congressman Paul Ryan.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Democrat, Wisconsin): We've been talking about on how much we agree on different issues, but there really is a difference between us, and it's basically this: We don't think the government should be in control of all of this. We want people to be in control. And that, at the end of the day, is the big difference.

LIASSON: But other Republicans noted that 60 percent of health insurance in America already comes through the federal government, including the insurance that every member of Congress enjoys, a point made by the number-two Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durbin, who reminded Republicans that their own Federal Employees Health Benefit Program has several features the GOP opposes in the president's plan, including minimum standards for health insurance.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): If you think it's a socialist plot and it's wrong, for goodness' sakes, drop out of the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program. But if you think it's good enough for your family, shouldn't our health insurance be good enough for the rest of America? That's what it gets down to. Why have this double standard?

LIASSON: There were some heated exchanges like this one between the president and his old rival, Arizona Senator John McCain. McCain used the summit to remind the president about how angry voters were over the way the Democrats' bill had been written.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Now, both of us during the campaign promised change in Washington. In fact, eight times you said that negotiations on health care reform would be conducted with the C-SPAN cameras. I'm glad, more than a year later, that they are here. Unfortunately, this product was not produced in that fashion. It was produced behind closed doors.

LIASSON: The president shot back.

Pres. OBAMA: Let me make this point, John, because we're not campaigning anymore. The election is over.

Sen. MCCAIN: I'm reminded of that every day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: The - well, I - yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIASSON: The Republican Senate leaders chose Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to lay out their case against the president's bill. He began by making two non-negotiable demands: scrap the bill and promise not to pass any bill with Democratic votes only.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): So if we can do that, start over, we can write a health care bill. It means putting aside jamming it through. It means reducing health care costs and making that our goal for now and not focusing on the other goals.

LIASSON: Republicans say their goal is to cut costs. The president and most economists say you can't do that without bringing a lot more people into the system. The gulf between the two parties looked bigger than ever as the president closed the summit this way.

Pres. OBAMA: The question that I'm going to ask myself and I ask of all of you is: Is there enough serious effort that in a month's time or a few weeks' time or six weeks' time, we could actually resolve something? And if we can't, then I think we've got to go ahead and make some decisions, and then that's what elections are for. We have honest disagreements about the vision for the country, and we'll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November, all right?

LIASSON: There was no mistaking what the president meant. He has made the decision to forge ahead and try to heave a health care bill over the finish line with Democratic votes alone. But it's not clear whether yesterday's summit helped Mr. Obama convince enough wavering members of his own party on Capitol Hill to join him.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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