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U.S. President Barack Obama walks to Blair House, across the street from the White House, for the afternoon session of a meeting with members of Congress to discuss health reform legislation. (SAUL LOEB/Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Barack Obama walks to Blair House, across the street from the White House, for the afternoon session of a meeting with members of Congress to discuss health reform legislation. (SAUL LOEB/Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Failure of U.S. health summit satisfies both sides Add to ...

Barack Obama did not achieve the rapprochement he publicly hoped would come out of his day-long summit on health-care reform. If anything, the chasm separating the President from Republicans on how to fix the sickly U.S. system was only wider at the end.

That's exactly how both sides wanted it.

The seven-and-a-half hours Mr. Obama spent cooped up with Democratic and Republican leaders in Blair House, the Washington residence usually reserved for First Guests, underscored the stark and unbridgeable differences between the parties in this most American of political debates. Republicans successfully defined health-care reform - at least Mr. Obama's version of it - in classic wedge-issue terms.

Now, having established the impossibility of bipartisan compromise, Mr. Obama is free to proceed with the next leg of his health-care strategy. It involves pushing a final reform package through the Senate with only 51 votes, instead of the 60 normally needed to override an opposition filibuster.

The spectre of "reconciliation" hung over yesterday's meeting. And Mr. Obama was no longer hiding his cards.

"I think the American people aren't always that interested in procedures inside the Senate," the President offered. "I do think they want a vote on how we're going to move this forward. I think most Americans think a majority vote makes sense."

Using a procedural quirk to pass all-encompassing social legislation is objectionable to many, including some Democratic senators. Bill Clinton found himself at the same juncture in 1993 and was warned off using reconciliation by the upper chamber's living memory and moral authority, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd. Mr. Clinton quickly caved.

Mr. Clinton's failure has haunted every step of Mr. Obama's attempt to overhaul the $2.5-trillion health-care leviathan. The President is betting voters won't remember or care how his health care reform package got passed once they start to reap its benefits. He did not indicate yesterday whether he has consulted Mr. Byrd, now 92 and still a sitting senator, but he did seem determined not to pull a Clinton.

Arizona Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama's Republican foe in the 2008 presidential election, warned that using reconciliation to enact legislation "could harm the future of our country and of our institution."

But, having come farther than any president who's tried to fix health care, Mr. Obama indicated he's willing to take his chances. "We cannot have another year-long debate about this," he said in his closing remarks. If voters decide they don't like Obamacare, well, "That's what elections are for."

"It's very clear that reconciliation is the direction they're heading in," said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "The only question is whether [the Democrats]can actually get a majority in the House [of Representatives]and Senate."

Indeed, for every liberal Democrat in Congress pressing the President to plow ahead, there is likely another who harbours doubts about using exceptional means to pass legislation that more Americans oppose than support. Those doubts are particularly strong among Democrats in conservative states and districts, who risk defeat in this fall's midterm elections.

"The real question for congressional Democrats now is whether they feel the President gave them enough cover with the summit to go ahead and support reconciliation," said Dante Scala, who chairs the political science department at the University of New Hampshire.

The Republicans continued yesterday to portray Mr. Obama's proposals as a bureaucratic monster in the making that runs roughshod over states' rights. They made no apologies for not having their own 2,700-page alternative, saying incremental reform is best.

"We've come to the conclusion that we [in the United States]don't do comprehensive well," insisted Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander. "Our country is too big, too complicated, too decentralized for Washington, a few of us here, just to write a few rules remaking 17 per cent of the economy all at once."

Republican depictions of Mr. Obama's proposals as a "government takeover" of health care have stuck in the public imagination, even though the President long ago dropped the idea of creating a "public option" to compete with private insurers and never advocated a single-payer system such as Canada's.

Mr. Obama gave a backhanded compliment yesterday to Wisconsin Republican congressman Paul Ryan, who used the "government takeover" line, for coming up with "some good poll-tested language." But there's no joking about it: It is probably too late for the President to undo the impression Republicans have created, at least in time for the fall votes.

The outcome of midterm elections, when voter turnout is lowest, typically depends on which side can bring out its base. Republicans have theirs all fired up. Ramming health-care reform through Congress with a reconciliation vote in the Senate will stoke the other side's flames, but Obamacare's demise would further demoralize the Democratic grassroots.

Rapprochement and reconciliation may often mean the same thing. But at yesterday's summit, the former was never an option. With Mr. Obama's embrace of the latter, he may have finally given the Democratic base, well, hope.

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