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Obama Challenges Republicans on Health Care Talk

By CQ Staff

Feb. 9, 2010 -- President Obama on Tuesday pushed back against Republican demands that he "start over" on health care, pressing GOP leaders to acknowledge that they cannot dictate the shape of an overhaul.

After a White House meeting with top House and Senate leaders from both parties, Obama said all sides agree that the status quo is unacceptable, with health insurance premiums rising sharply and health costs adding to the federal deficit each year. But it was clear that the agreement ends there.

Obama has called for a bipartisan health care summit Feb. 25, a call that has brought a chilly reaction from congressional Republican leaders. Not long after Tuesday's meeting, the office of House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, sent out an e-mail alert headlined, "White House Health Care Summit: Honest, Bipartisan Conversation or Set-Up for Another Democratic Backroom Deal?"

Obama made clear he does not intend to scrap the work that went into the stalled health care bills passed by the House and Senate last year (HR 3962, HR 3590), as Republicans demand. But he said he was open to new ideas on how these "core goals" could be met.

He said Republicans need to offer suggestions that can be "measured against this test: Does it bring down costs for all Americans, as well as for the federal government, which spends a huge amount on health care? Does it provide adequate protection against abuses by the insurance industry? Does it make coverage affordable and available to the tens of millions of working Americans who don't have it right now? And does it help us get on a path of fiscal sustainability?"

Not only should any legislative proposals meet those goals, Obama said, but an impartial arbiter such as the Congressional Budget Office needs to confirm that they would do so.

The president said bipartisanship doesn't mean surrender. "I'm willing to move off some of the preferences of my party in order to meet them halfway, but there's got to be some give from their side as well," he said of the Republicans.

"Bipartisanship can't be that I agree to all of the things that they believe in or want, and they agree to none of the things I believe in or want, and that's the price of bipartisanship, right? But that's sometimes the way it gets presented," he said.

One area where Obama indicated he was open to compromise was medical malpractice and tort reform — a cause Republicans have championed for years against stiff Democratic resistance. GOP lawmakers say defensive medicine, designed to ward off malpractice suits, drives up health care costs significantly.

"If it's established that by working seriously on medical malpractice and tort reform that we can reduce some of those costs, I've said from the beginning of this debate I'd be willing to work on that," Obama said.

"On the other hand, if I'm told that that is only a fraction of the problem and that is not the biggest driver of health care costs, then I'm also going to insist, "OK, let's look at that as one aspect of it, but what else are we willing to do?'"

Obama acknowledged that the public has grown hostile to the Democrats' health care overhaul, but he blamed that on process rather than substance.

"What I agree with is that the public has soured on the process that they saw over the past year. I think that actually contaminates how they view the substance of the bills."

He did not mention that the "process" that proved so unpopular was the decision by Democratic leaders to draft the final House and Senate health bills behind closed doors, with deals made in the Senate to pick off the votes of particular Democratic centrists.

"I think it's important for all of these issues to be aired, so that people have confidence if we're moving forward on such a significant part of the economy as health care that there is complete transparency and all of these issues have been adequately vetted and adequately debated," Obama said.

He said the Feb. 25 health care summit would provide that opportunity.

"Let's establish what the issues are, what the problems are, and let's test out in front of the American people what ideas work and what ideas don't. And, you know, if we can establish that factual accuracy about how different approaches would work, then I think we can make some progress."

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