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Lawmakers Press Points At Health Care Summit

A health care overhaul has become a "very ideological, very partisan battle," President Obama said Thursday in opening a summit he hopes will help resolve that divide.

President Barack Obama gives his opening remarks during a bipartisan meeting to discuss health reform legislation with congressional members at the Blair House as Vice President Joe Biden and Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services Secretary, listen February 25, 2010 in Washington, DC.
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Above: President Barack Obama gives his opening remarks during a bipartisan meeting to discuss health reform legislation with congressional members at the Blair House as Vice President Joe Biden and Kathleen Sebelius, Health and Human Services Secretary, listen February 25, 2010 in Washington, DC.

Obama brought Democrats and Republicans together in a televised meeting aimed at jump-starting an overhaul of the nation's health care system and rescuing his administration's central domestic policy initiative. The president, accompanied by Vice President Biden, opened the gathering by saying that he was "very glad to see a glimpse of bipartisanship" in passing a jobs bill, and that he hoped that could continue.

"I hope this isn't political theater where we are just playing to the camera," he said.

But at times, it looked to be exactly that.

At one point during the meeting at Blair House, the president upbraided his former presidential rival, Sen. John McCain, for resorting to political "talking points."

After McCain used time to complain that Obama had reneged on a campaign promise to bring "change in Washington," the president bluntly told him that "we're not campaigning anymore. The election is over."

McCain retorted that he is "reminded of that every day."

The Arizona senator said people don't understand why health care legislation was formulated "behind closed doors."

The president said the health care overhaul plans in the House and Senate had "the most hearings, the most debates on the floor and the longest markup" of any bills in decades.

"I think the way you characterize it would get some strong objections from the other side," Obama said.

The meeting comes after months of stalemate in Congress that has threatened to scuttle the overhaul. Republican lawmakers opposed to Democratic plans have been emboldened by public opinion that is increasingly split over the issue.

The Democrats hope to pass a bill that would extend coverage to more than 30 million people who are now uninsured. But the measure would come with a price tag of $1 trillion over the next decade and include a number of complicated provisions that in some cases would take years to phase in.

The president has appealed to both sides to give him at least a modest bill, a far cry from the major changes talked up in the early days of the administration just a year ago.

Three dozen lawmakers, plus several administration officials, sat at a hollow square table with name placards. Leaders of both parties spoke.

"We believe our views represent the views of a great number of American people," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), said in delivering opening remarks for the Republicans.

Although the Obama administration has characterized the meeting as an attempt to bridge the partisan divide, many observers see it as a precursor to a go-it-alone strategy by Democrats to ram their plan through, over the objections of the Republicans. Democrats say no decision on legislative strategy will be made until after the summit.

In response to Alexander's challenge for Democrats to forgo forging ahead alone on a bill, Obama said that in the senator's remarks, he heard "a bunch of things we'd like to do and are, in fact, in the legislative bills.

"What I would suggest is let's talk about the substance ... and we might surprise ourselves and find that we agree more often than we disagree," Obama said.

Alexander said the president was wrong when he said the Democrats' plans would not increase premiums.

The president replied that he wanted to get that point resolved during the day's discussion because: "I'm pretty certain I'm not wrong."

Obama agreed with assertions by Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn that waste and abuse now account for up to a third of the cost of entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, and is a major barrier to more widespread insurance coverage.

Coburn said cost is the key to why millions of Americans remain uninsured. House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland said he thought Coburn had a point, but said proposals by Democrats addressed the kind of cost containment that Republicans support.

New York Sen. Charles Schumer called the discussion "a constructive dialogue" and said he thought there was a lot of agreement between the two sides.

But lawmakers argued passionately over the details, prompting Schumer to issue a veiled challenge, questioning why Republicans have strayed from their traditional opposition to "waste, fraud and abuse."

Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl shot back that the two parties had "fundamental differences that we cannot paper over."

"We do not agree on the fundamental decision about who should be in charge," he said. "We all agree on eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Of course we do. But it's how you go about it."

In an 11th-hour move, the White House invited Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, one of the few Republican moderates the White House courted throughout last year, in hopes of winning her support for the legislation. She declined since she wasn't chosen under the long-standing rules for the event.

A USA Today/Gallup survey released Thursday found Americans tilt 49-42 percent against Democrats forging ahead with health care overhaul without any Republican support.

From NPR and wire service reports.

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