Summing up the D.C. summit

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 6:58 p.m.

Thursday’s bipartisan summit on health care in Washington may not have been as volatile as a summit involving Latin American and Caribbean countries earlier this week in Mexico, where the president of Venezuela publicly told the president of Colombia in no uncertain terms to “go to hell.”

But on a day when a captive audience in the northeastern corner of the country was hunkered down to await a predicted killer snowstorm, it was pretty good political theater regardless.

A photograph published in the Friday morning newspaper courtesy of The Associated Press pretty much conveyed the atmosphere of the summit attended by 21 Democratic and 17 Republican lawmakers in a Blair House conference room. It showed Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid glumly walking past a dour Senate Re-publican leader Mitch McConnell in a hallway outside the hearing room — Reid appropriately headed left, and McConnell headed right, no pleasantries exchanged, none expected.

A wire service report in yesterday’s newspaper described the summit as having been widely derided in advance, pre-scripted as an infomercial and drained of any hope of producing substantive agreement long before it began.

It seemed to be all of that. But it also produced a sense that the endgame on the seemingly never-ending debate on health care reform may be in sight. Not that anyone who has not been in a coma for the past year or so heard anything new, mind you. If you can’t recite some of this stuff in your sleep, you are luckier than most, and probably should henceforth count your blessings twice daily.

President Barack Obama chaired the summit and did an admirable job of crowd control when you consider that he was dealing with a species programmed to talk for long periods of time without coming up for air.

He had called for the summit, Obama said, because when it had come to bipartisanship regarding health care legislation, politics had “ended up trumping common sense.” He said he hoped the lawmakers would have a serious discussion, rather than merely offer talking points while playing to the camera. Then he opened up the meeting for discussion. And the politicians responded with their carefully scripted talking points while playing to the camera.

Nearly every speaker had a sob story to tell about some poor bloke back home who had become a destitute and forlorn basket case for want of proper health care. “Claims, counterclaims and statistics flew through the room in the daylong talkfest,” the AP reported. House Republican leader John Boehner, with the 2,700-page health care bill stacked conspicuously in front of him, told Obama that the bill was a “dangerous experiment that would bankrupt the country.”

Reid grumpily suggested that some Republicans were making up the “facts,” as they went along, and others were filibustering something fierce. McConnell complained that Democrats seemed to be hogging the show. CNN reported that during the morning session Republicans had held the floor for 55 minutes and Democrats for 116 minutes, including 57 minutes by Obama. Obama said that was proper because he was serving as chairman, and “I’m the president.”

Optimists among the participants professed to believe that the two sides were closer to agreement than one might suppose. Pessimists said they were further apart than ever. Obama and Sen. John McCain, rivals in the 2008 presidential election, had a brief spat about a campaign promise concerning open negotiations that Obama had broken. Obama reminded McCain that the campaign had ended 16 months ago. Reid looked totally bored throughout the process, although to his credit he looked as fed up with Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s speechifying as he did with any Republican’s.

Now the issue belongs to the pundits for analysis unto the death, although their pontification doesn’t figure to much alter the presumed Democratic strategy moving forward. In his closing summation, Obama implied that Democrats would tiptoe through the political minefield that is the reconciliation process — going it alone, without Republican support, if it comes to that — in an attempt to pass health care legislation with a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate

They had, after all, won the 2008 election. And elections have consequences.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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