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Health Summit May Enforce Partisan Divide

Top Republicans and Democrats gather at the White House Thursday to discuss President Obama's health care proposal. After spending most of last year working on the issue, the two parties are stalled. Democrats hope the public, bipartisan event will kick-start the process. Republicans are a bit more wary.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today's televised event in Washington could make you think of those oversized soap operas called Telenovelas, the Latin American dramas go on for hours and hours and hours; or maybe you think of it like an extra long episode of "American Idol" or one of those marathon showings of "CSI". In this case, President Obama meets leaders of Congress. Republicans and Democrats will spend six hours on live television talking about health care. This morning, we'll get the perspective from both parties as they prepare for their moment in lights. We start with the Republicans.

Here is NPR's Andrea Seabrook.

ANDREA SEABROOK: When the microphone is off, Republicans will tell you it's a tough challenge, convince Americans, the Democrats plan is no good, but avoid coming off as being against everything. Switch the microphone back on and this is what you hear.

LAMAR ALEXANDER: I think this is a terrific opportunity for us.

SEABROOK: Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. Today's live summit is the perfect chance, says Alexander, for the GOP to shake off Democrats' claims that the Republicans have become the party of no.

ALEXANDER: The president's giving us an excellent opportunity to make more of the public aware that for the entire year in 2009, we've been offering what we think we should do.

SEABROOK: Republicans say health reforms should focus on lowering costs for people who already have insurance rather than expanding coverage to people who don't. They want to do this with business incentives and competition, rather than government regulation of insurance companies. Alexander says the negativity towards President Obama's plan didn't start with Republicans, it's from the people.

ALEXANDER: The American people thoroughly reject it. So, if he is listening to the American people, they've said no to his bill and I believe they will say to yes to us working together, step by step, to reduce costs.

SEABROOK: This is the message you are likely to hear a lot today. Republicans reject the health care overhaul because the people reject the health care overhaul. You hear it from Arizona Senator John McCain.

JOHN MCCAIN: The American people are very smart. That's why two thirds of them want either stop or start over.

SEABROOK: And you hear it from House Republican whip, Eric Cantor.

ERIC CANTOR: What we are trying to do is find out why the president want to continue to ignore the American people.

SEABROOK: Republicans say, it's right there in the polls. A Newsweek poll shows 52 percent of Americans disapprove of Mr. Obama's handling of health care. Another poll shows half oppose the current plan; and an ABC News-Washington Post poll says three out of five think it's too complicated and too expensive. But there's a pitfall for Republicans here, too.

Those very same polls I just quoted show other trends. In the ABC poll, respondents trusted the president to solve health care problems over Republicans by five percentage points. A Pew Research Center poll asked which party could do a better job at reforming the health care system, 45 percent said Democrats and only 32 percent said Republicans. And many recent polls have shown that people who are generally weary of President Obama's plan often show strong support of most of its individual parts.

So, while Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, says Americans have already rejected health care...

MITCH MCCONNELL: Fifty five percent of them oppose it and 37 percent support it.

SEABROOK: Senate Democratic, leader Harry, Reid says Americans want his party to keep working on it.

HARRY REID: Fifty eight percent of the American people would be angry or disappointed if we didn't pass health care reform this year.

SEABROOK: And they are both right. So that's why today's health care summit is both an opportunity and a risk for Republicans. They have a chance to show they're on the side of average Americans, but if they only highlight people's discontent and not their continuing desire for real change in the system, Republicans risk looking like they are just being partisan with numbers. Like they are part of the problem, which is after all, how the Democrats try to paint them. One last thing, there's a bit of polling data no one in Congress waves around. The Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows 59 percent of Americans think the process is stalled right now because both sides are playing politics.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, The Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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