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Obama, Republicans Square Off at Health Care Summit

By Adriel Bettelheim, CQ Staff

Feb. 25, 2010 -- Congressional Republicans on Thursday again urged President Obama to scrap his plans for overhauling the U.S. health care system and restart the debate on how best to control medical costs and expand coverage.

During opening remarks at a bipartisan White House health care summit, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Obama engaged in a terse exchange over whether Democrats' overhaul plans would actually reduce insurance premiums.

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

Obama quickly challenged Alexander's contention that insurance premiums would rise under Democrats' plans, citing Congressional Budget Office projections that Obama said show the opposite.

"This is an example of where we've got to get our facts straight," Obama said.

Alexander replied that Obama was wrong.

"Rather than argue with you in public about it, I'd like to put my facts down, give them to you," Alexander said.

The group of 40 representatives and senators and administration officials broke for a lunch break shortly before 1 p.m., after nearly three hours of back-and-forth that largely repeated old talking points.

Obama and congressional Democrats like Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., stressed areas where the sides agree, such as the need for a new set of baseline insurance regulations. Republicans assailed the size and complexity of Democrats' plans, saying they gave the government too much opportunity to influence personal care decisions.

Obama's 2008 campaign opponent, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized the president for failing to deliver on a campaign pledge to change the culture of Washington, prompting a terse reply from the president.

"We're not campaigning any more. The election is over,'' Obama said.

In his opening remarks, the president said attendees had to determine whether it still is possible to find consensus on a contentious issue.

"If we're listening to each other, if we're not engaging in sort of the tit for tat and trying to score political points during the next several hours . . . we might be able to make some progress. And if not, at least we will have better clarified for the American people what the debate is about," Obama said.

The White House structured the six-hour summit to focus on four issues: controlling costs, overhauling insurance regulations, reducing the deficit and expanding health coverage. Should participants prove unable to bridge their differences, Obama said, it would be necessary to "proceed from there."

The White House on Feb. 22 released an overhaul proposal it said would extend coverage to more than 31 million people, at a 10-year cost of $950 billion. The administration says the cost would be more than offset by spending reductions and tax increases, resulting in approximately $100 billion of deficit reduction.

Should the proposal fail to win enough votes, the administration is said to be considering a fallback plan that would extend coverage to about 15 million people through a more modest expansion of Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. That plan would cost about $240 billion over 10 years.

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