Obama, Republicans clash at health summit

Barack Obama is to make a final push to get his healthcare reform Bill through by the end of March after Thursday’s polarised and testy summit of Democratic and Republican members of Congress.

That leaves him just a few weeks to ram through one of the biggest and most contentious Bills since the 1960s.

The summit at Blair House in Washington, carried live on television, was billed by the White House as an attempt to secure bipartisan agreement to rescue a health reform after a year of bickering. But there was little sign of the two sides closing the huge gap between them.

Obama, at the opening of the all-day summit, attended by 40 members of Congress, pleaded for consensus: “So here’s the bottom line. We all know this is urgent. And unfortunately over the course of the year, despite all the hearings that took place and all the negotiations that took place ... this became a very ideological battle. It became a very partisan battle. And politics I think ended up trumping practical common sense.”

He personalised the debate, talking of when his daughters Malia and Sasha had been ill and his mother dying, and said that the members of Congress each had their own stories.

Obama said: “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 theatre, where we’re just playing to the cameras and criticising each other, but instead are actually trying to solve the problem.”

But it looks as though he will have to push the legislation through without support from Republicans.

Sweeping reform
The two leading Democrats in Congress, the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate leader, Harry Reid, have told Obama he has until the Easter recess to get the Bill through. After that, with members of Congress facing election in November, they would have to turn their attention to other issues, primarily jobs and the economy.

The president is proposing sweeping reform of America’s failing health service, which would cost an estimated $950-billion and expand insurance coverage to 31-million Americans. The Republicans oppose a comprehensive approach, suggesting instead a series of small steps that would cost $61-billion and extend insurance to only three million Americans.

The Republican senator from Tennessee Lamar Alexander, the first from his party to respond to Obama, quickly highlighted that there was unlikely to be a meeting of minds on health. He called on Democrats to abandon the work of the last year on health that produced two draft Bills passed by the Senate and the House and start from scratch.

Alexander said: “So our view, with all respect, is that this is a car that can’t be recalled and fixed, and that we ought to start over. But we’d like to start over.”

He said that comprehensive Bills did not work for the US. “Our country is too big, too complicated, too decentralised ... That sort of thinking works in the classroom but it doesn’t work very well in our big complicated country.”

He challenged the Democrats, if they were serious about bipartisanship, to renounce plans to jam the bill through Congress.

The Democrats pointedly refused to renounce their plan. Under a process called reconciliation, the Democrats plan to have the House vote on a version of health reform passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve. The Senate version is more conservative than a version passed in November by the House and does not contain populist proposals put forward by Obama on Monday: this will require a second Bill.

Political stunt
This convoluted legislative process is to prevent the Republicans using filibuster tactics in the Senate, where the Democrats are one short of the majority needed to override such delaying tactics.

In spite of the many hours of discussion, the summit was basically a political stunt, an opportunity for the president to portray the Republicans as obstructionist and short of ideas on health reform. The Republicans saw it as a platform to point out holes in the Democratic plan.

Such is the polarisation that the two sides even had an argument about the shape of the table they would sit at, rejecting a u-shaped one for a rectangular formation. The Republicans were reluctant to have the president being seen as lecturing them from a central position. They also bickered throughout the summit about how much time each side was being given.

The one small area on which there was agreement was on a Republican plan to set up an exchange system where customers could compare the costs of health insurance plans, similar to checking airline prices on the internet for the lowest costs. - guardian.co.uk

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