Thursday's health care summit quickly evolved into a heated partisan exchange, with President Obama trying to maintain a cordial tone while Democrats and Republicans ripped each other's ideas and approaches to reform.


As Agence-France Presse described it:

Partisan sniping and ideological divides tore at a veneer of civility at Barack Obama's health summit on Thursday, despite his plea for no "political theater" on an issue dragging down his presidency.

Obama gathered Republican foes and Democratic allies in a unique televised meeting billed as a bid to bridge divides in a poisonous political climate over his top domestic priority, which is perilously stalled in Congress.

"I hope this isn't political theater where we are just playing to the cameras and criticizing each other," Obama said, at the six-hour summit at the Blair House presidential guest house opposite the White House.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) blasted the Republican Party for allegedly lying about the nature of the bill and the debate, telling them, "You're not entitled to your own facts."

"We don't care for this bill," said Republican Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA).

President Obama clashed with his 2008 presidential opponent Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), telling him "the election is over" after McCain ripped into the process by which Democrats crafted their health care bill.

The Associated Press added:

Obama lamented the partisan bickering that has resulted in a stalemate over legislation to extend coverage to more than 30 million people who are now uninsured. "Politics I think ended up trumping practical common sense," he said.

The original Associated Press story unfolds below.

Barack Obama's bid to overhaul the US health care system headed to a dramatic climax Thursday as the president gathered Democratic and Republican leaders for a last-gasp televised debate.

Almost nine months after Congress first took up his top domestic priority, Obama is challenging opposition Republicans to drop obstruction tactics and back his new 950 billion dollar plan to cover 31 million uninsured Americans.

The president has invested too much political capital to delay further and faces a pivotal moment in his presidency as he makes one final effort to win over lingering Democrats and a skeptical, recession-battered American public.

Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other leading Democrats will square off with top Republicans such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Arizona senator John McCain for a live debate around the same table.

The unusual event, a classic piece of Washington political theater, will last six hours from 10:00 am (1500 GMT) at Blair House, across the street from the White House, and will be streamed live on the White House website.

Republicans have dismissed the so-called "summit" as a sham, accusing the White House of having already decided to force a bill through the Senate using a process called reconciliation to bypass their delaying tactics.

"It seems to me the president's already made up his mind," McConnell said Tuesday.

In an email to reporters on Thursday, the Republican National Committee said "Bet on It -- Obama will keep on pushing a government takeover of health care."

But White House spokesman Robert Gibbs insisted the summit was a genuine effort to bridge political divides and improve the lives of Americans.

"You know, put aside this notion of "Kabuki Theater," -- put aside this notion of six-hour photo ops and, instead, come and let's discuss, in earnest, good ideas on health care," he told ABC News Thursday.

Obama will open Thursday's session followed by Republican and Democratic leaders speaking on four talking points: controlling costs, insurance reforms, reducing the deficit, and expanding coverage.

A sign of its knife-edge importance, Republicans insisted on a table set-up after coming off second best at a recent annual party retreat in Baltimore when a professorial Obama appeared to be lecturing them from a podium.

Obama unveiled his own plan on Monday in what was seen as a last-ditch effort to break the deadlock in Congress and prevent Republicans from further stalling his agenda ahead of crucial mid-term elections in November.

After months of wrangling, the House and the Senate adopted different versions of a reform bill late last year but they must be combined into a single piece of legislation for Obama to sign into law.

Republicans derailed that process last month by capturing a crucial Massachusetts Senate seat that gave them the power to delay final votes with endless debate using a legislative tactic called a filibuster.

Obama may try to use a procedure reserved for budget-related legislation, to drive a bill through with a simple Senate majority of 51 votes.

Criticized last year for failing to get personally involved in framing the legislation, Monday's announcement saw Obama take full ownership of the Democrats' health care bill for the first time.

He had reason to be wary as a similar move by former president Bill Clinton ended in a spectacular failure that saw the Democrats lose control of both the House and the Senate in mid-term elections in 1994.

The Obama plan sticks largely to the Senate version of the legislation while embracing certain aspects from the House bill and a few proposals put forward by the Republicans. Facts:Main points of Obama health care plan

Tapping into popular anger at recent premium hikes by leading insurers, it would grant the federal government greater power to block such moves and create a new monitoring body of health industry experts.

The proposal claims it could reduce the US budget deficit by 100 billion dollars over the next 10 years and by one trillion dollars over the second decade by reining in waste, fraud and abuse.

On Wednesday, the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to strip health insurance firms of exemptions from federal anti-trust rules in a sign of possible movement on health reform.

The United States is the world's richest nation but the only industrialized democracy that does not provide health care coverage to all its citizens.

Row simmers at US health reform summit
AFPPublished: Thursday February 25, 2010

Partisan sniping and ideological divides tore at a veneer of civility at Barack Obama's health summit on Thursday, despite his plea for no "political theater" on an issue dragging down his presidency.

Obama gathered Republican foes and Democratic allies in a unique televised meeting billed as a bid to bridge divides in a poisonous political climate over his top domestic priority, which is perilously stalled in Congress.

"I hope this isn't political theater where we are just playing to the cameras and criticizing each other," Obama said, at the six-hour summit at the Blair House presidential guest house opposite the White House.

The president however, profited from the theatrical nature of this rare Washington drama himself, striding into the talks beaming, as leading foes and allies stood as a show of respect ahead of his opening remarks.

Obama is challenging opposition Republicans to drop obstruction tactics and back his new 950 billion dollar plan to cover 31 million uninsured Americans.

He said health reform was crucial to alleviating deficits and to the future health of the US economy, and was a moral imperative with millions of Americans hit by health care bills they cannot afford to pay.

But Republicans demanded he shelve his ambitious plan and start again from scratch, and said they had better ideas.

And in early exchanges, the political bile suffocating Obama's ambitious reform bid could not be concealed, even as each side tried to show they were providing the bipartisanship voters tell pollsters they crave.

Obama and Senator Lamar Alexander -- the top Republican at the meeting -- clashed over the cost of health care reforms.

"Let me just finish, Lamar," Obama snapped, after the Republican took the rare step of directly challenging a US president in public on his facts.

After Alexander argued Obama's plan would result in rising health care premiums, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid rebuked him, saying "you're entitled to your opinions, but not your own facts."

Reid later acidly accused another Republican Tom Coburn, of filibustering with a long-winded answer.

Many Republicans doubt Obama's sincerity in holding the meeting at all, fearing he may benefit if they agree to compromise on health care reform and believe if they block him he will hammer them as obstructionist.

But opening the summit in a tone that belied the fractious debate over the issue, Obama called on both sides to focus on areas of agreement.

"We all know this is urgent 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."

But the president also admitted "it may be at the end of the day we come out of here and everybody says ... we can't bridge the gap between Democrats and Republicans on this."

Obama also invoked his own personal story -- the death of his mother from cancer and childhood illnesses of his daughters Malia and Sasha -- to highlight the plight of less fortunate Americans without good health care.

Republicans selected Alexander -- not known as a partisan flame thrower -- to speak first, and he matched Obama's conciliatory tone -- though like the president showed no sign of shifting fundamental positions.

"We want you to succeed, because if you succeed, our country succeeds, but we would like respectfully to change the direction you are going on health care costs," Alexander said. Facts:Main points of Obama health care plan

The Tennessee senator called on Obama to drop plans to use a budget process known as reconciliation to ram health care reform through Congress with a simple majority, bypassing Republican obstruction tactics.

But Obama declined to talk legislative tactics.

Should he finally pass health care reform, Obama could lay claim to an achievement that has eluded Democratic president's for generations.

Should he fail, he would see his political authority splintered and his hopes for a grand reforming presidency shatter, just a year into his mandate.

After months of wrangling, the House and the Senate adopted different versions of reform late last year but they must unite on a single piece of legislation for Obama to sign into law.

Republicans derailed that process last month by capturing a crucial Massachusetts Senate seat that gave them the power to delay final votes with endless debate using a legislative tactic called a filibuster.

Obama unveiled his own plan Monday, for the first time seeking ownership of the issue after an unprofitable year largely allowing Congress to set the pace.

Tapping into popular anger at recent premium hikes by leading insurers, it would grant the federal government greater power to block such moves and claims it could reduce the budget deficit by one trillion dollars over two decades.