Friday, February 26, 2010

President Obama pledged to “listen” at the outset of his much-ballyhooed bipartisan health care summit on Thursday. Turns out he meant he’d be listening to his own voice.

By the end of the televised event, Mr. Obama had spoken for 119 minutes - nine minutes more than the 110 minutes consumed by 17 Republicans. The 21 Democratic lawmakers used 114 minutes, giving the president and his supporters a whopping 233 minutes, according to a “talk clock” kept by GOP aides.

From the beginning, no one could agree on anything, even how much time each side had used. When a miffed Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, pointed out early on that Democrats had controlled 52 minutes to Republicans’ 24, Mr. Obama jumped in to dispute even that.

“I don’t think that’s quite right,” he said.

But then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added: “You’re right, there was an imbalance on the opening statements because - I’m the president.” Half the room laughed. “I didn’t count my time in terms of dividing it evenly.”

The two sides faced off in the Blair House’s Garden Room, with members of Congress, grouped by party, sitting across from one another in a large square. Throughout the six-hour bloviating blabfest, no fences appeared to be mended and no hatchets buried.

In fact, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seemed so intractable that neither looked at Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee as he delivered the opening statement for the Republicans. Every time the C-SPAN 3 camera panned to the pair, they were looking straight ahead, expressionless.

Throughout the event, Mr. Obama, a former professor, looked, well, professorial. He listened attentively, his head cocked, his chin raised. He narrowed his eyes in attentiveness at a point here or there, blinking often; he jotted notes in a small book as Republicans spoke; he rested his head on his hand, giving full attention to the speaker.

But each time a Republican sought to break in to rebut a point made by the president or a fellow Democrat, Mr. Obama looked a bit frustrated and made clear who was in charge of the bipartisan discussion.

“Let me just finish, Lamar,” he said during his rebuttal to the senator’s opening statement. “No, no, no, no. Let me - and this is an example of where we’ve got to get our facts straight,” he said when Mr. Alexander sought to clarify a point.

The bitterness that underlies the contentious health care reform debate burst to the surface fairly quickly, when Sen. John McCain, who lost to Mr. Obama in the 2008 election, lectured the president about what he called a backdoor process to produce the Senate bill.

“John, can I just say -” Mr. Obama interrupted.

“Can I just finish, please?” Mr. McCain said tersely before continuing, refusing to yield the floor.

“Both of us during the campaign promised change in Washington,” Mr. McCain said. “In fact, eight times [as a candidate] you said that negotiations on health care reform would be broadcast on C-SPAN cameras. I’m glad that more than a year later they are, here. Unfortunately, this product was not produced in that fashion; it was produced behind closed doors.”

Clearly irritated, Mr. Obama furiously flipped through the pages in a briefing book in front of him as Mr. McCain spoke. When he finished, the president teed off on his former adversary.

“Look, let me just make this point, John, because we are not campaigning anymore. The election’s over,” he said, staring at the Arizona Republican.

“I’m reminded of that every day,” Mr. McCain shot back with a tight smile, adding that despite that fact, “the American people care about what we did and how we did it.”

Mr. Obama didn’t smile as he continued to scold the senator. “We can have a debate about process or we can have a debate about how we’re actually going to help the American people at this point. And I think that the latter debate is the one that they care about a little bit more.”

The president also took a swipe at Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, who sat behind a 3-foot stack of papers - a copy of the legislation produced by the Senate.

“Lemme just guess: That’s the 2,400-page health bill,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “When we do props like this, you know, stack it up, and you repeat 2,400 pages, et cetera, you know, the truth of the matter is that health care is very complicated. And we can try to pretend that it’s not, but it is.”

The daylong session often fell into mind-numbing recitations of minutia as the attendees argued about the smallest nuts and bolts of the Senate bill. But each side appeared locked into their opposing positions, and Republicans knew full well that after the supposedly bipartisan chat, Senate Democrats hope to move ahead with passing the bill with a simple majority, bypassing a long-standing rule that 60 members approve a floor vote.

Even before the summit began, as Mr. Obama walked over to the diplomatic guest house, he made clear that he has no problem going with a Democrats-only strategy.

When asked by reporters whether he had a Plan B, he said with a smile: “I’ve always got plans.”

From the outset, Mr. Obama acknowledged that compromise would be difficult, even as he called for an actual “discussion, and not just us trading talking points” about the chasm that separates the two sides.

“I don’t know that those gaps can be bridged,” he said with candor.

In hour six, a moment occurred that summed up the bipartisan spirit that existed in the room. Listing the problems with the Senate bill, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner concluded: “I could go on and on and on.”

“You have,” Mrs. Pelosi said with a tight smile.

Joseph Curl can be reached at

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