Obama healthcare summit opens: bipartisanship scarce, so far

Obama began Thursday's healthcare summit by asking lawmakers to 'focus on where we agree.' But some tense exchanges, including with former campaign opponent John McCain, showed limited success on the bipartisan front.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Barack Obama holds a bipartisan healthcare summit to discuss health reform legislation at the Blair House in Washington on Thursday.

President Obama opened his highly anticipated bipartisan healthcare summit Thursday with a plea to drop the usual talking points and focus instead on areas of agreement.

Halfway through, it appears the president isn’t getting very far. He scolded some Republicans, including his adversary in the 2008 campaign, who did not hesitate to fire back. His own team, Democratic members of Congress, also stuck to a fairly predictable script, recounting healthcare horror stories that they say demonstrate the need for major reform. (For more on the healthcare proposal that Obama put forward this week, click here.)

“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,” Mr. Obama said as he opened the session, adding that he has looked “very carefully” at various Republican plans.

Obama also sought to shoot down some of the standard Republican rhetoric, such as the repeated claim that Obama and the Democrats seek to enact a federal takeover of the American healthcare system.

“You’re defining exactly what kind of insurance people can have,” said Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin. “It’s just a difference in philosophy.”

Obama replied: “We should set up minimum standards … at least solid enough that if your kid got sick, they’re actually going to get treated.”

Obama persisted in pushing his point that there are areas of agreement between Republicans and Democrats on healthcare reform.

His list included: allowing parents to keep insuring their adult children until the age of 25 or 26; banning “recission,” in which insurance companies drop customers when they get sick; barring insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions; and getting rid of annual and lifetime ceilings on coverage.

In remarks to the press pool after he existed Blair House, on his way across Pennsylvania Avenue back to the White House for the lunch break, Obama struck a hopeful note.

“I think we’re establishing that there are actually some areas of real agreement, and we’re starting to focus on what the real disagreements are,” the president said. “If you look at the issue of how much government should be involved – the argument that Republicans are making really isn’t that this is a government takeover of health care, but rather that we’re insuring the – or we’re regulating the insurance market too much. And that’s a legitimate philosophical disagreement. We’ll hopefully be able to explore it a little more in the afternoon.”

But in the meeting room that morning, the partisan sparks flew – most notably between Obama and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee for president in 2008, as they sparred on insurance reform.

Senator McCain raised Obama’s promise during the presidential campaign, since broken, that he would televise healthcare negotiations on C-SPAN.

“Both of us during the campaign promised change in Washington,” McCain said. “In fact, eight times you said that negotiations on healthcare 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.”

McCain then decried special deals that were made for residents of certain states in the health reform legislation that has already passed.

“Let me just make this point, John, because we’re not campaigning anymore,” Obama said. “The election’s over.”

“I am reminded of that every day,” McCain said.

McCain’s combative posture served as a reminder that he is locked in a tough primary battle for reelection, fighting a challenge on his right flank.

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