- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2010

In what’s being billed as a last-ditch effort for a bipartisan compromise on health care, President Obama convened a day-long summit with congressional leaders Thursday with a call for lawmakers to come together over possible areas of agreement.

“This has become a very ideological battle, it became a very partisan battle, and politics, I think, ended up trumping common sense,” Mr. Obama said. “This is such a complicated issue that it’s inevitably going to be contentious, but what I’m hoping to accomplish today is for everybody to focus not just on where we differ but focus on where we agree, because there actually is some significant agreement on a host of issues.”

But congressional Democrats and Republicans have dug in their heels on the issue, with the GOP demanding that the majority scrap their health care bills and start over while Democrats are threatening to use a parliamentary tactic that would allow them to sidestep a Republican filibuster to push the bill through the Senate.

In one exchange, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Americans don’t understand why reform legislation on health care was done with dealmaking “behind closed doors.” He also said Mr. Obama reneged on a campaign promise to bring “change in Washington.”

Mr. Obama the told Mr. McCain not to resort to political “talking points,” adding, “We’re not campaigning any more. The election is over.”

Tempers flared earlier this week when Mr. Obama released his own tweaked version of the Senate’s health care proposal, leading Republicans to say the White House already has made up its mind on what it wants.

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The televised meeting is taking place across the street from the White House at the historic Blair House, where about three dozen lawmakers were seated around tables arranged in a large, open square. Flanked by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, Mr. Obama sat in the center of one of the tables, where he kicked off the six-hour meeting by praising a recent bipartisan vote in the Senate for a $15 billion jobs bill.

The debate over health care has been one of the most vitriolic in recent memory, and polls show the public doesn’t have high expectations for a bipartisan outcome or for Thursday’s gathering. According to a USA Today/Gallup survey, three out of four Americans predict Mr. Obama and congressional leaders won’t be able to reach agreement.

Republicans have argued that the Democratic plans are too expensive and amount to a “government takeover” of the nation’s health care system. Democrats have accused Republicans of being obstructionists and only interested in opposing them for political purposes. Both sides have set up “rapid response” teams to instantly point out alleged misstatements or misrepresentations from the day’s discussion.

“I don’t know that those gaps can be bridged,” Mr. Obama said of the areas where the two parties disagree. “But I’d like to make sure that this discussion is actually a discussion and not just us trading talking points. I hope that this isn’t political theater, where we’re just playing to the cameras and criticizing each other, but instead are trying to solve the problem. That’s what the American people are looking for.”

Mr. Obama said the summit will focus on four areas: lowering costs for families and small businesses, making sure the insurance market “works for people,” dealing with long-term deficits, and ensuring that people who don’t have coverage can get it.

In the Republicans’ opening remarks, Sen. Lamar Alexander, Senate GOP Conference chairman, said Republicans want Mr. Obama to succeed but argued he can do that only if he changes direction. Citing recent Republican victories in New Jersey, Virginia and Massachusetts, he said the public supports shelving the comprehensive bills under consideration and urged Democrats to take an incremental approach.

“We don’t do comprehensive well,” Mr. Alexander, Tennessee Republican, said. “Our country is too big, too complicated, too decentralized.”

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