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President's health summit highlights divisions
February 26th, 2010
President Obama's health summit failed to generate momentum for his latest reform proposal.
WASHINGTON – After hours of televised discussion, Democrats and Republicans showed they're still at odds over health care reform, and President Barack Obama's health summit gave no oomph to his latest proposal to overhaul the nation's health system.
The discussion/debate, held at Blair House near the White House and including administration officials and roughly 40 lawmakers, covered the key health reform issues and spotlighted areas of agreement and disagreement between the parties.
However, the event ended with Republicans ready to start from stratch for a health reform package and with Democrats and Obama prepared for the possibility of trying to go it alone to pass a health reform bill.
In fact, Obama indicated his willingness to let voters ultimately decide whether they approve of the government's efforts to improve health care or were let down by their elected officials.
"So 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?" Obama said in closing remarks at the summit. "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."
The president called the summit discussion "worthwhile" to the extent that it crystallized the points of accord and conflict in health reform and, hopefully, would bring the long-running debate to a close and expedite action in getting a final bill through Congress and to his desk to sign.
"What I do know is this: If we saw movement — significant movement, not just gestures — then you wouldn't need to start over because essentially everybody here knows what the issues are. And procedurally, it could get done fairly quickly," Obama said, alluding to a parliamentary maneuver that might enable Democrats to dodge a Republican filibuster in the Senate and pass a health bill by a simple majority.
"We cannot have another year-long debate about this," the president noted.
In response to Obama's opening remarks about key elements of the health debate and of proposals in the House and Senate bills and the administration's own recommendations, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) indicated that Republicans are ready to begin again in devising a package for reform.
"We believe we have a better idea. And that's to take many of the examples that you just mentioned about health care costs, make that our goal — reducing health care costs — and start over, and let's go step by step toward that goal," Alexander said at the summit.
He also urged Democratic leaders not to employ a legislative tactic, known as "budget reconciliation," to drive through such a sweeping measure as a health reform bill on their own.
"My request is this, is before we go further today, that the Democratic congressional leaders and you, Mr. President, renounce this idea of going back to the Congress and jamming through on a partisan vote through a little-used process we call reconciliation, your version of the bill. You can say that this process has been used before, and that would be right, but it's never been used for anything like this. It's not appropriate to use to write the rules for 17% of the economy," Alexander said.
He later added, "So if we can do that — start over — we can write a health care bill."
Democratic congressional leaders noted that they want to hear Republicans' ideas on improving proposals already put forth by lawmakers and the administration as well as any new ideas that advance the debate and move the nation closer to a final bill.
"I know, it's obvious, we've heard it — our Republican friends oppose our legislation. And that is your right," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said in comments at the summit. "But also, it becomes your responsibility to propose ideas for making it better.
"So we're ready to listen," Reid added. "I so appreciate the president getting us together. I want the American people to know that we need to work together, and I want to do everything that I can as a senator to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get this done. We need to do health care reform."
Obama set the stage for the summit earlier this week when he unveiled his latest health care reform proposal, designed to bridge the gap between the House and Senate bills and offer new provisions to reduce waste, fraud and abuse.
According to the White House, the proposal reflects policies from the House-passed bill along with the president's priorities and some changes to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Senate-passed health insurance reform bill.
Republicans basically say the bills proposed thus far are too costly and would lead to bigger government without providing much in the way of improved health care. Yet Democrats say proposals by Republicans opposing the current bills don't address the core issue of increasing access to health care — notably for the tens of millions of Americans without health insurance — or go far enough to make health care more affordable for individuals, families and small businesses.
At the summit, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) stressed that Americans want their government to come to a resolution soon on health care reform. "I just hope that as we sit around this table, we understand the urgency that the American people have about this issue, how it affects not only their health but their economic security," she said.
And opinion polls show that citizens, indeed, are tired of partisan bickering over an issue so critical as reforming the nation's health care system. A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, for example, found that 59% of Americans polled say the delays in passing health care reform are "more about both sides playing politics" and that 25% believe the issue is "more about Republicans and Democrats having disagreements."