WASHINGTON-What happens when you get together 40 high-powered lawmakers for a six-hour televised debate on a contentious issue like healthcare? A heavy dose of talking points.
For those that have not been following the congressional healthcare debate that has dominated Washington for the past year then Thursday's hyped healthcare summit provided an exhausting one-day primer. But hopefully those who expected some sort of breakthrough at the Blair House weren't holding their breaths.
Both parties carved out their positions and offered no retreat throughout the marathon event held across the street from the White House.
President Obama proved to be a verbose host, dominating the debate for the Democrats while Republicans spread out their agenda among a handful of House and Senate lawmakers.
The nearly 400 minutes of talk, which at one point included a surreal story about an uninsured women having to use her dead sister's false teeth, could be boiled down to this: Republicans want Democrats to scrap current congressional healthcare bills and start over using a step-by-step approach. Yet Democrats exclaimed that the process has gone too far to start over now.
The meeting-where every lawmaker fought to get his or her moment-concluded with no grand compromise. But it did provide an interesting educational snapshot of the political philosophies of the two parties. And this ideological talking point tug-of-war proved that the differences are substantial.
Republicans here championed a free-market approach to empower people to make their own choices while Democrats clung to their faith in government mandates and regulations.
"We don't do comprehensive well," explained Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who gave his party's opening statement. "They fall of their own weight. Our country is too big, too complicated, too decentralized for Washington, a few of us here, just to write a few rules about remaking 17 percent of the economy all at once."
But Democrats disagreed, pressing their belief that the government must take a larger role in the nation's healthcare system, and that their nearly 2,400-page sweeping overhauls are the way to do it.
"I did not propose something complicated just for the sake of being complicated," Obama countered. "We'd love to have a five-page bill. [But] baby steps don't get you to the place where people need to go."
Obama claimed that both parties agree on expanding access, preventing individuals from being ineligible for insurance due to pre-existing medical conditions, and for providing states with incentives to lower costs. But the meeting made clear that a wide gap exists between the processes each party believes should be employed to achieve these goals.
Republicans signaled that they would hold firm in their opposition to the Obama $950 billion healthcare proposal. And in the end, after this rhetorical olive branch yielded no common ground, Democrats signaled that they are willing to go at it alone when it comes to healthcare. They hope to push a bill through by the end of March, and then it will be up to voters to decide this November if the majority party went too far.
Neither side offered few concessions during the political theater as each side propped up their plans while criticizing the other side's plans. Thursday was not unlike the floor speeches heard in Congress during most of 2009, but the novelty this time was that lawmakers had to be in the same room together during the mutual bashing.
Alexander early on tried to get the Democrats to renounce the use of a procedure called reconciliation that could muscle the bill through the Senate on a simple 51-vote majority.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid countered that reconciliation has been used 21 times since 1981, mostly by Republicans.
"So reconciliation isn't something that's never been done before," he said.
Obama tried to stress the similarities between the healthcare goals of the two parties. He seemed to use the debate as a way to nudge his plan to the center in the arena of public perception, suggesting to viewers back home that his plan is more like what the Republicans want than what Republicans are willing to admit.
"We might surprise ourselves and find that we agree more than we disagree," he said, agreeing to look into the medical malpractice reform that is a key tenant of Republican plans.
But the GOP did not take the bait.
"We have a very difficult gap to bridge here," said Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. "We just can't afford this. That's the ultimate problem."
Republicans spent the day citing polls to back their claims that the American public also wants the current healthcare bills sidelined. "If you think the American people want a government takeover of healthcare, I would respectfully submit you are not listening to them," Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, told Obama.
Abortion, which has been a key part of the healthcare debate with moderate Democrats inserting protections against the federal funding of the procedure in the House bill, made a cameo appearance late in Thursday's summit.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, who called the current bills a "dangerous experiment," said that Obama's plan, less restrictive than the House bill, would clear the way for taxpayer-funded abortions. Obama pinched his nose and rubbed his eyes as Boehner spoke. But the issue is sure to reappear in the coming weeks as Democrats try to pass the Senate bill and its lack of abortion protections through a House with a sizeable voting block of pro-life Democrats.
During the lunch break of the session, Obama seemed all smiles as he passed reporters gathered outside the Blair House.
"I don't know if it's interesting watching it on TV," he answered when asked if the debate is gripping the country.
Educational is probably a better word then interesting. But in the end this historic gathering did not tell the nation's voters much that they didn't already know: Democrats are determined to pass a healthcare bill; with or without Republicans and with or without the majority of the American people.