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Obama Hosts Unprecedented Broadcast Health-Care Summit


U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday launched what some analysts say could be his last major push to get a health care reform bill through Congress. At a nationally televised meeting with top lawmakers, the president urged Republicans and Democrats to seek common ground.

They met for roughly six hours in a packed room at Blair House - the gracious old mansion near the White House that usually hosts visiting heads of state.

As television cameras captured the event, the president appealed for unity.

"We all know this is urgent," said President Obama.

He spoke of the long hours of discussion and deliberations that have already taken place on Capitol Hill, and of the bitterness and controversy that have become part of the health care debate.

"This became a very ideological battle," said Mr. Obama. "It became a very partisan battle and politics, I think, ended up trumping practical common sense."

President Obama said the tone of the debate needs to change. He said it is time to put politics aside.

"I hope that this isn't political theater where we are just playing to the cameras and criticizing each other, but instead we are actually trying to solve the problem," said President Obama.

But it did not take long for the health care summit to turn contentious.

Republicans, like Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, said they were ignored by majority Democrats in drafting the legislation to reform the American health care system - a system where most people use private insurance to help pay their medical bills.

Democrats want greater government involvement to make sure that all Americans have access to affordable health care - including the roughly 30 million uninsured. But Alexander stressed his party believes in a step-by-step approach to cutting costs - an approach he said would be more fiscally responsible at a time of rising federal deficits.

He told the summit that the legislation drafted by Democrats must be tossed out, and that lawmakers should start the process all over again.

"So our view, with all respect, is that this is a car that can't be recalled and fixed, and that we ought to start over," said Lamar Alexander.

And so it went, hour after hour. As time passed, it sounded less and less like a meeting, and more and more like a Congressional debate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Democrats would not start the legislative process all over again. She told those around the table at Blair House to remember all of the American families that are struggling to pay for medical care.

"What we do here must be relevant to their lives," said Nancy Pelosi. "And for them, they don't have time for us to start over."

But Eric Cantor of Virginia - the number two Republican in the House of Representatives - stressed that the bill put forward by Democrats is too costly and will explode the national debt.

"We just can't afford this," said Eric Cantor. "That is the ultimate problem here - in a perfect world, everyone would have everything they want. This government can't afford it. Businesses can't afford it."

When the long hours of discussion concluded, it appeared that no minds had been changed, but at least a dialogue had begun.

Both sides are now expected to regroup and assess the summit results. Democratic congressional leaders say they are hopeful something will come out of the meeting. But they also make clear that they are willing to go it alone, if necessary, to get health care reform through Congress.

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