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Democrats, Republicans Dig in on US Health Care Reform

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Congressional Democrats said Friday they will push ahead with a controversial health care reform plan, President Barack Obama's top domestic policy goal.  Both sides in the health care debate are assessing the political landscape in the wake of Thursday's seven-hour discussion on the issue hosted by President Obama.

As expected, the marathon talking session did not produce any bipartisan agreement on health care, and the stage appears set for Democrats to make one final push in Congress to enact the president's top domestic priority with or without help from opposition Republicans.

The so called health care summit gave both sides an opportunity to restate their positions on the issue, with the president playing the role of moderator in search of common ground.

But given the hardened positions on both sides, Mr. Obama signaled that he and his Democratic allies were prepared to move ahead on the issue and let the public render a verdict in the congressional midterm elections in November.

"And if we can't, then I think we've got to go ahead and make some decisions and then that's what elections are for.  We have honest disagreements about the vision for the country and we'll go ahead and test those out over the next several months till November," said the president.

Republicans saw little movement toward common ground in the summit.  This is the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

"Frankly, I was discouraged by the outcome.  I do not believe there will be any Republican support for this 2,700-page bill," he said.

If anything, the meeting seemed to highlight the ideological differences between the two parties on health care.

Conservatives like Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl oppose the Democratic plan as an intrusion of government into the private sector that will result in soaring budget deficits.

"There are some fundamental differences between us here that we cannot paper over.  And, Mr. President, when you said that this is a philosophical debate and it is a legitimate debate, I agree with that," said Kyl.

Democrats who emerged from the meeting seemed just as determined to press ahead with plans to extend health insurance coverage to about 30 million Americans who currently do not have it.

After a year of debate, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said it is time for action.

"Time is of the essence.  The American people have waited five decades for this.  It is time we do something and we are going to do it," he said.

Many political experts said the health care summit yielded little in terms of bipartisanship and seemed more an exercise in political theatre.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of the Weekly Standard magazine:

"My verdict on it was that it was unusual but it really didn't lead anywhere.  In other words, it did not improve the chances of the health care legislation that President Obama so much wants to get passed," he said.

Barnes spoke on VOA's Issues in the News program, as did longtime political observer Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News.

"The ideological differences may be so strong that they just will not be able to come together, and I don't believe that they will.  Obama kept trying to get the Republicans to try to find some middle ground, but it is pretty clear there is not much, if any, middle ground," Barenes said.

Democrats must decide now how they will move ahead in trying to pass the reform measure.  Public opinion polls show Americans oppose the Democratic reform bill, even though surveys also show most Americans want Congress to do something about the rising cost of health care.

Tom DeFrank says the next several weeks will be a major political test for President Obama.

"Obama has to prove that he can govern, and to prove you can govern, you have got to get something passed.  So far, his list of legislative accomplishments is pretty meager, and he does have to worry about midterm elections in November of this year," said DeFrank.

What happens to Mr. Obama's health care plan will have an enormous impact on his political standing, both at home and abroad.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee this week that the domestic political battle over health care and other issues is having an impact on the president's foreign policy goals and the U.S. image overseas.

"We have to be attuned to how the rest of the world sees the functioning of our government because it is an asset.  It may be an intangible asset, but it is an asset of great importance, and as we sell democracy and we are the lead democracy in the world, I want people to know that we have checks and balances but we also have the capacity to move, too," Clinton said.

Democrats say they remain open to Republican ideas on health care, but several Republicans at the health care summit urged the president to simply scrap the Democratic bill and start over.

Republicans often cite public opposition to the bill in opinion polls, and they expect that opposition to help them gain seats in the November congressional elections.

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