President Barack Obama pleaded his case for health care overhaul in an extraordinary summit with Republicans today broadcast live to a divided American public.
At stake in the high-risk strategy is the Democrats’ stalled legislation to extend coverage to more than 30 million people who are now uninsured.
Politically, it is an all-or-nothing gamble in a congressional election year for a party and president bent on achieving a goal that has eluded them for a half-century.
Polls show Americans want their elected leaders to address the problems of high medical costs, eroding access to coverage and uneven quality. But the public is split over the merits of the Democrats’ sweeping legislation, with its trillion-dollar, 10-year price tag and many complex provisions.
For Mr Obama the summit is his chance to make a compelling closing argument to the American people. If he succeeds, Democrats will push ahead to pass the legislation with a package of revisions he has proposed.
If he falters another Democratic president will have been humbled by health care. He will have to appeal to both sides to at least give him a modest bill smoothing some of the rough edges from the current system.
Mr Obama’s spokesman said hours in advance of the session that he thinks the talks can be productive if participants “put aside this notion of kabuki theatre, put aside this notion of six-hour photo ops.”
He said that he understands “why the American people don’t think Washington can get anything done.”
On Wednesday, the statements of two congressional leaders illustrated the chasm between the parties, however.
“We’ll have that meeting,” said Senator Chris Dodd, a Democrat. “But far more important, after that meeting, you can either join us or get out of the way.”
“I think it’s nearly impossible to imagine a scenario under which we could reach an agreement,” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. “Because we don’t think we ought to pass a 2,700-page bill that seeks to restructure one-sixth of our economy.”
Both men were at the summit.