Obama appeals for unity in health reform battle
Thirteen months into his US presidency, Barack Obama invited 40 congressional leaders to an unprecedented meeting yesterday to forge consensus on an issue that threatens to bankrupt the country and derail his ambition of transforming society.
His challenge to Republicans to abandon politics-as-usual fell largely on deaf ears, but brought moments of drama, including a bitter rebuke of Mr Obama's governing style over the past year from his former opponent, Senator John McCain.
Mr Obama responded: "We're not campaigning, John. The election's over."
Six hours of televised debate left uncertain the fate of the most ambitious social legislation in a generation: the reform of a health insurance system that accounts for nearly a sixth of US gross domestic product.
It has become a proxy for an even broader battle between liberals who, last year, sensed a historic chance to reinvent the federal government in favour of the poor, and conservatives determined to bury Mr Obama's promises of change and render him a one-term president.
As one commentator from his home town of Chicago put it: "Obama needs a victory. Either that, or he faces irrelevancy and insurrection."
Long before the Secret Service shut the streets around the White House to allow Mr Obama to walk across Pennsylvania Avenue to Blair House, the venue for the meeting, his opponents and even his vice-president had warned the event would prove to be nothing more than political theatre -- but it was compelling theatre.
Mr Obama opened proceedings with a deeply personal appeal for bipartisanship, and for reform of a system he said had forced his mother to argue with insurance companies from her hospital bed as she lay dying from ovarian cancer.
Republican Lamar Alexander, the former Governor of Tennessee argued the solution was to tear up Democratic health reform bills and start again. Republicans proposed a six-point plan they said would cut costs and extend insurance cover without the $950bn (€700bn) cost of Mr Obama's plan.
When Mr Alexander claimed Democratic proposals would actually raise insurance premiums for many, the president interrupted him twice.
"No, no, no, here's what the Congressional Budget Office actually says," he insisted, promising to produce documents that resolved the issue.
The meeting, playing to Mr Obama's unmatched debating skills, represented his last hope of pulling off a legislative coup that has eluded reformers since President Theodore Roosevelt first proposed universal health coverage a century ago. (© The Times, London)