Republicans made a smart choice in selecting Lamar Alexander, a Republican senator from Tennessee, to make their opening statement at the summit. Mr Alexander has a history of bipartisanship and has on occasion voted with Democrats, a record he alluded to in his remarks.
The choice of messenger may have portended well, but his message did not. Mr Alexander exhorted “the Democratic Congressional leaders and you Mr President,” to renounce the idea of “jamming through” the healthcare bills passed in the House and Senate using what he called a “little known” process called reconciliation. This was ironic given that during the previous Bush administration, the reconciliation process was used to “jam through” changes such as sweeping tax cuts.
Personifying openness, Mr Obama leaned back in his chair, one arm over the back of it, as he listened to Mr Alexander repeat the unpalatable Republican talking point that the healthcare reform process be scrapped and started over.
Then it was time for the Democrats to make their opening pitch. As if to underline the divisions between the majority party in the House and Senate, a key hurdle to pushing the legislation through (House liberals balk at the suggestion they should just pass the less-expansive Senate version of the bill), the president’s party could not even agree on who would give their opening statement. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, and Harry Reid, the majority leader in the Senate, instead split the time allocated to them for an opening statement.
Ms Pelosi did not respond to Mr Alexander’s calls, instead sticking to her talking points about why the healthcare system needed to be reformed. Then Mr Reid launched straight into campaign mode, name-checking his home state of Nevada – where he is facing a tough re-election battle in November.
Mr Reid did, however, directly respond to Mr Alexander’s statements on reconciliation, saying that it had in fact been used 21 times since 1981, mostly by Republicans, “for major things like Medicare reform, tax cuts for rich people”.