At health-care summit, Obama tells Republicans he's eager to move ahead

President Obama has opened the high-stakes health-care summit he hopes will break the political gridlock stalling a U.S. medical system overhaul.
By Shailagh Murray and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010

President Obama declared Thursday that the time for debate over health-care reform has come to an end, closing an unusual seven-hour summit with congressional leaders by sending a clear message that Democrats will move forward to pass major legislation with or without Republican support.

Democratic leaders face a heavy lift in reviving their stalled bill, a process that would involve intricate parliamentary maneuvering and carries no guarantee of success. But Obama signaled that if meaningful GOP cooperation does not materialize in the weeks ahead, he is ready to proceed without bipartisan support and risk the political consequences.

"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. "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."

The remarkable session at Blair House ranged from dull to pointed as it revealed the deep divide between the two parties over health care. It was the same philosophical gulf that led to the collapse of bipartisan Senate negotiations last summer, and the primary reason Congress has resorted to changing the health-care system piecemeal, rather than in broad strokes, over the years.

Republicans said that they share Democrats' assessment that the health-care system is broken, but that they view the pending legislation assembled by Democrats as deeply flawed. They questioned fundamental elements of the Democrats' approach, including whether it is appropriate for the government to set standards for coverage or require individuals to buy insurance.

Obama played the role of active moderator for much of the event, calling on participants to speak and interjecting when he disagreed on specific points. He chided members of both parties for lapsing into campaign rhetoric, but he saved some of his most pointed jabs for Republicans, his voice heavy with sarcasm when he accused GOP speakers of using "good poll-tested language" to describe the Democratic plan as "government-run health care."

Some Republicans were more pleased with the session than others. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) complained as the GOP delegation left the White House that Democrats and Obama had consumed the vast majority of the airtime. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) described it as "a good discussion," telling reporters, "I wouldn't call it a waste of time."

GOP lawmakers arrived at the table with two primary goals: to demonstrate that the party has its own health-care solutions, and to criticize the Democrats' proposal as big-government overreach.

"We Republicans care just as much about health care as the Democrats in this room," said Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), the No. 2 House Republican. But he added: "There is a reason why we all voted no. And it does have to do with the philosophical difference that you point out."

During a break in the session, Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) deemed a bipartisan deal "a long-shot" prospect, but he told reporters that Democrats are undaunted in their quest to deliver a bill to Obama's desk.

"If nothing comes of this, we're going to press forward," he said. "We just can't quit. This is a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity to deal with a health-care system that is really unsustainable."

Democrats are attempting a historic feat in seeking passage of a huge bill that aims to expand coverage to an additional 30 million people, reform insurance industry practices and curb rising health-care costs.

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