President Barack Obama
and John A. Boehner (R-Ohio)
gesture while Nancy Pelosi
(D-Cal.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.)
look on at the White House,
Feb. 10. (Official White House
Photo by Pete Souza)
By Steven Thomma and David Lightman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama and Republicans sparred over health care in a historic face-off Thursday, punctuated by a pointed exchange between Obama and the man he defeated for the presidency in 2008, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
McCain criticized Obama for leading a Democratic effort to overhaul health care marked by secret negotiations, legislative payoffs to key senators and a popular backlash against a system he called unsavory.
He chided the president that the two of them had promised to change the way Washington works when they ran in 2008, and that Obama had failed to deliver. "We're not campaigning anymore," the president told McCain. "The election is over."
Obama brushed aside McCain's criticism, saying, "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's _ the latter debate is the one that they care about a little bit more."
The personal confrontation was one of several in the six-hour session among the president, top members of his administration and 38 members of Congress from both parties.
They met at Blair House, across the street from the White House. Obama called the meeting to try to hammer out a compromise with Republicans that would allow Congress to enact proposals to expand health coverage to many of the nation's uninsured, curb soaring health insurance costs and add protections such as requiring insurers to cover people who have pre-existing conditions.
Democrats want a sweeping overhaul, but they may not have enough support within their ranks to push the plan through Congress. Republicans support some of the ideas - such as requiring coverage for pre-existing conditions - but they would spend far less to extend coverage to fewer uninsured. They also oppose greater government control over health insurance and costlier plans to expand coverage.
"We all know this is urgent," the president said. "And unfortunately over the course of the year ... this became a very ideological battle. It became a very partisan battle. And politics, I think, ended up trumping practical common sense."
He said he didn't know whether the two parties could agree on a final plan.
"I don't know that those gaps can be bridged," he said. "And it may be that at the end of the day we come out of here and everybody says, 'Well, you know, we have some honest disagreements. People are sincere in wanting to help, but they've got different ideas about how to do it, and we can't bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans on this.'''
Laying out the broad views of Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said his party reflected popular opinion that the Democratic proposal was too big and too costly.
"We believe that our views represent the views of a great number of the American people, who have tried to say in every way they know how - through town meetings, through surveys, through elections in Virginia and New Jersey and Massachusetts - that they oppose the health care bill that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve," Alexander said.
"We want you to succeed, because if you succeed our country succeeds. But we would like, respectfully, to change the direction you're going on health care costs," Alexander said. "We believe we have a better idea."
He likened Obama's proposal unveiled Monday, which merges ideas from bills that the House of Representatives and the Senate passed last year, to a new car at an auto show that looks just like a model from the year before.
"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," Alexander said.
Alexander and other Republicans also pressed the president to rule out using the Senate's so-called "reconciliation" rules to push through its plan on a simple majority rather than a 60-vote supermajority, which would require at least one Republican vote.
"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," he told Obama.
"If we don't, then the rest of what we do today will not be relevant. The only thing bipartisan will be the opposition to the bill."
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., reacted angrily.
"No one has talked about reconciliation, but that's what you folks have talked about ever since that came out, as if it's something that has never been done before," he said.
"But remember, since 1981 reconciliation has been used 21 times. Most of it has been used by Republicans, for major things, like much of the Contract for America, Medicare reform, the tax cuts for rich people in America. So reconciliation isn't something that's never been done before."