Capitol Hill Bureau Chief
President Obama began the bipartisan health care summit Thursday morning by framing health care costs as a catastrophic drag on the American economy, and by imploring Republicans to abandon their talking points and engage in an open-minded discussion about how to improve health care delivery for all Americans.
"I hope that this isn't just political theater, where we're just playing to the cameras and criticizing each other, but instead are actually trying to solve the problem," Obama said to the Republicans and Democrats assembled in the Garden Room of Blair House in Washington. "That's what the American people are looking for."
But when the president turned the floor over to the Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee put a challenge on the table for Obama and the Democratic leadership in the room.
"The American people have tried to say in every way they know how . . . they oppose the health care bill that passed the Senate on Christmas Eve," he said. "We believe we have a better idea. Take the ideas you mentioned and start over."Alexander then asked Democrats to commit that they will not use reconciliation -- a process that requires 51 votes rather than 60 -- to pass health care in the Senate.
"Renounce this idea to use reconciliation to pass your version of the bill," Alexander said. "You can say this process has been used before, and it has, but not for something this big. It's not appropriate to use [for] 17 percent of the economy."
With reconciliation as a possibility, he concluded, "the rest of what we do today will not be relevant. The only thing bipartisan will be the opposition to the bill."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took the floor shortly after Alexander and slammed the Republican's contention that Americans do not want the Senate's bill.
"I would say to my friend Lamar, you're entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts." Reid cited a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll that showed 58 percent of the American people would be "disappointed" if Congress did not pass health care reform this year.
As Reid concluded his remarks, he did not say reconciliation wasn't an option.
Nor did the president.