It wasn’t a disaster for either Republicans or Democrats. It wasn’t a total bore either. And while there were some combative moments, the two sides managed to remain largely civil.
In the end, the big White House health-care summit was basically what it was expected to be: many hours of talk that will ultimately be seen to have served as an anchor on which Democrats steadied their legislative ship while they tried to regain momentum for a push through Congress.
Nonetheless, some news and themes emerged:
President Obama has no problem with using reconciliation to force a bill through Congress
Sen. John McCain of Arizona made a poignant case for why the little-used budget maneuver should be used, casting it as an abuse of power and recalling his own actions to buck the Republican party when they were ready to jam judicial nominees down Democrats’ throats in 1995.
“There has been reconciliation, but not at the level of an issue of this magnitude and I think it could harm the future of our country and our institution, which I love a great deal, for a long, long time,” McCain said.
“I think the American people aren’t always all that interested in procedures inside the Senate. I do think that they want a vote on how we’re going to move this forward,” he said.
In his final comments of the day, Obama argued to Republicans, and to the American people watching on TV, that he had made numerous concessions to conservative ideas, and said that Republicans should do the same and meet him halfway.
But, he said, if a deal can’t be reached “in a month’s time or a few week’s time or six weeks time … then I think we’ve got to go ahead and make some decisions, and that’s what elections are for.”
Republicans, however, pointed to reports that the White House intends to try to push a bill through Congress regardless of whether they jumped on board or not.
“What it was is, ‘We’ll invite you down, and if we don’t think we can convince you we’re ramming it through,’ rather than having a real serious debate about the issues and trying to meet in the middle. So I’m pretty discouraged,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, in an interview after the meeting.
The question remains whether Democrats even have enough votes to pass a bill, with or without reconciliation, which is a measure focused on the Senate. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor estimated that Democrats are roughly 15 votes short of the 217 they currently need to pass a bill.
Obama’s inner liberal
It became apparent during the six-hour-plus meeting that while the president recognizes the country’s looming fiscal crisis that is being brought on by out of control health-care costs, his highest priority is expanding coverage to all Americans.
“I’d like the Republicans to do a little soul-searching and find out, are there some things that you’d be willing to embrace that get to this core problem of 30 million people without health insurance?” he said at the end of the day.
Obama’s rhetoric is at odds with the reality that many Americans, especially in times of economic downturn, aren’t particularly interested in the government making charity (even if liberals call it justice) its top priority.
Yet it was an honest admission by a president who has often tried to sell health-care reform to the country on the basis that it is the best way to fix the nation’s fiscal mess. That talking point was rarely heard in the many hours of debate.
Obama intimated that Republicans don’t really care about helping Americans in need as much as he and Democrats do, or that they were pretending to.
“If we think it’s important as a society to not leave people out, then we’re going to have to figure out how to pay for it,” he said, “But what we shouldn’t do is pretend that we’re going to do it and that there is some magic wand to do it without paying for it.”
While the president gave nods to “market forces” and competition between insurers, he was at his most effusive, and emotional, when talking about “down-and-out” Americans who motivate his quest for comprehensive health-care reform.
In ways that he has rarely, if ever, spoken about the health-care debate, Obama openly dismissed the alternative framework that some conservatives have tried to introduce into the debate over the last year, which would move Americans toward more personal responsibility for paying regular medical fees out of personal funds and being insured only for catastrophic events.
“Would you be satisfied if every member only had catastrophic care?” he asked Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican. Barrasso said he would, especially if members had health savings accounts.
“Would you feel the same way if you were making $40,000 … because that’s the reality for many folks,” Obama said. “They’re not sultans from wherever … they’re folks who are left out. And this notion somehow that for them, the system is working, and that if they just ate a little better and were better health-care consumers they could manage, is just not the case.”
In Listening Mode
Both sides claimed they were listening. But they said they were listening to different groups.
The president and Democrats were at pains going into the summit to stress that they were going to listen to Republican ideas on health care.
“Looking forward to listening,” Obama said to reporters as he walked across the street from the White House to Blair House.
Republicans, meanwhile, said they were “listening to the American people.”
“We know from the polling that’s been done in this country how the American people feel,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
“We know the American people oppose this bill on an average of 55 to 37 percent.”
“It’s really important, since we represent the American people, that we not ignore their opinion on this,” McConnell said.
The many claims from the GOP that popular opinion supported their position prompted one of the day’s more memorable lines, from Vice President Joe Biden.
“I think it requires a little bit of humility to be able to know what the American people think,” Biden scolded Republicans. “And I don’t, I can’t swear I do. I know what I think. I think I know what they think, but I’m not sure what they think.”
Disagreement about disagreement
Numerous Democrats argued throughout the day that the amount of disagreement between them and Republicans was not that great.
“We are actually quite close. There’s not a lot of difference,” said Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat. “We are on the verge and the cusp with not too much effort to try to bridge a lot of gaps here because the gaps in my judgment are not that great.”
“We may be closer together than people really think in actually getting agreement that we can move forward on,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat.
Sen. John Kyl, Arizona Republican, saw it differently.
“There are some fundamental differences between us here that we cannot paper over,” Kyl said. “We do not agree about the fundamental question of who should be mostly in charge.”
Rep. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, said Republicans, “don’t think the government should be in control of all of this. We want people to be in control.”
Putting people in control was a goal the White House was loathe to cede to the GOP. White House communications adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote a blog post after the session saying the day was “another step towards putting Americans in charge of their health care.”
Not every Democrat was on message with what the president himself called “poll-tested language.”
“People say decisions can’t come from Washington. Sometimes decisions have to come from Washington,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, West Virginia Democrat, who spent most of his speaking time lighting into the “rapacious” insurance industry.
Rep. Charles Rangel, New York Democrat, seemed to forget himself all together, noting that Democrats were “so close to national health insurance.”