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Obama Hosts Bipartisan Health Care Summit

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Today was the day President Obama held his much-anticipated health care summit at Blair House and on live television. The daylong back-and-forth did not produce much bipartisan agreement. Soon after the summit was over, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said he was discouraged by the outcome. And he said, once again, that the process should start from scratch. He said the American people want the health conversation to start over.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): They do not want this bill. It's time we started listening to the people that we represent.

SIEGEL: Today's summit did illuminate at least one thing, and that's how both parties see the stakes in the health care debate.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: The president and the members of Congress sat around a big square table. There was no lectern for Mr. Obama, the Republicans had insisted on that. The president opened the proceedings with a plea for bipartisanship: As contentious as the effort to change the health care system has been so far, he said, people still want us to move forward.

President BARACK OBAMA: If we're not engaging in sort of the tit for tat and trying to score political points during the next several hours, then we might be able to make some progress. And if not, at least we will have better clarified for the American people what the debate is about.

LIASSON: There wasn't much negotiating progress made but there was a great deal of clarification. The six hours of talk revealed the scope of the gulf separating the president and the Republicans on health care. Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander was designated as his party's chief spokesman and right away he pointed to the elections in Massachusetts, Virginia, and New Jersey, to argue that the public doesn't like the president's plan. And Alexander answered the question he says he gets asked by Democrats: Where is the Republicans' comprehensive bill?

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): And I say back, well, if you're waiting for Mitch McConnell to roll in a wheelbarrow in here with a 2,700 pages Republican comprehensive bill, it's not going to happen because we've come to the conclusion that we don't do comprehensive well.

LIASSON: Republicans don't share the president's goal of universal coverage. They prefer to focus on lowering costs. And Alexander had two demands for the president: abandon his own bill and promise not to push any bill through the Senate with the votes of Democrats only.

Sen. ALEXANDER: So if we can do that, start over, we can write a health care bill. It means putting aside jamming it through. It means reducing health care costs and making that our goal for now and not focusing on the other goals.

LIASSON: The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, responded to Senator Alexander's demand that the Democrats renounce the procedural maneuver called reconciliation by which bills can pass the Senate with a simple majority instead of a filibuster-proof 60 votes. Reid, who is planning to try this strategy next, pointed out that it is not such an unusual step.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Majority Leader): Remember, since 1981, reconciliation has been used 21 times. Most of it's 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 some thing that's never been done before.

LIASSON: Throughout the day the Republicans showed how confident they were that the public had accepted their main argument that the president's plan was a government takeover. Here's Arizona Senator Jon Kyl.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): There are some fundamental differences between us here that we cannot paper over. We do not agree about the fundamental question of who should be mostly in charge. Do you trust patients and doctors making the decision or do you trust Washington?

LIASSON: But several other Republicans noted that 60 percent of health insurance in America already comes from the federal government. The president, returning to the White House for a lunch break, was so eager to blunt the sharp edges of the GOP talking points that he stopped to have a rare informal chat with reporters. He pointed out that the Republicans had already agreed on a lot of ways to regulate the health insurance industry.

Pres. OBAMA: 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.

LIASSON: Legitimate and wide - too wide to be bridged at Blair House today or on Capitol Hill anytime soon.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.