Obama: "This became a very ideological battle.”

The summit on healthcare reform revealed a huge divide between Republicans and Democrats on the subject. At Blair House, Washington’s most elegant guesthouse, Barack Obama met with his Republican opponents to discuss his controversial healthcare reform plans.

The table, decorated in a green-white motif, was arranged in a rectangle. Originally, it was to have taken the shape of a horseshoe, but that idea drew immediate protests. With the horseshoe plan, several of the 40 invited politicians would have been forced to sit in the second row with their assistants. Then there was the height of the president’s chair back. It was supposed to have been slightly taller than the chairs used by everyone else, but ended up identical to the rest, although it was photogenically situated in front of a historic fireplace.

If these petty considerations foretold anything about the atmosphere of the summit, it was that there would be no major breakthroughs here. Perhaps even the president realized that, but if he did, he took great pains to hide it.

“This became a very ideological battle . . . I hope that this isn't political theater where we're just playing to the cameras and criticizing each other, but instead are actually trying to solve the problem . . . I'm going to start off by saying, here are some things we agree on. And then let's talk about some areas where we disagree, and see if we can bridge those gaps,” Obama appealed to the opposition.

The conservatives’ response, given by Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, made clear just how little maneuvering room there was for compromise: “But we think to do that we have to start by taking the current bill and putting it on the shelf and starting from a clean sheet of paper.”

Six hours of debate was scheduled for Blair House, an old villa usually used to house guests of the government. It was carried live on cable television in order to bring currency to the dialogue, but Obama’s moderation of the discussion was reminiscent more of a professor conducting a seminar. Nevertheless, it was apparent just how thin-skinned the opposition really is on the subject: “Unfortunately this product was not produced in that fashion," McCain said [referring to bi-partisanship]. "It was produced behind closed doors. It was produced with unsavory — I say that with respect — deal making," McCain taunted, alluding to arrangements made with several senators to steer millions of dollars to their states in return for their support. Obama replied, "Let me just make this point, John, because we're not campaigning anymore, the election's over."

Republican John Kyl spoke of fundamental differences; whether the government or the individual should be making the decisions. “We do not agree about the fundamental question of who should be in charge,” Kyl said. Dry-as-a-bone Senate majority leader Harry Reid quoted statistics showing that 45,000 Americans die every year because they have no health insurance and 70 percent of all private bankruptcies are traceable back to high medical costs.

Now the discussion has turned to whether Obama can find a way to get his reform package through Congress. Theoretically, the reconciliation process would allow the Democrats to do so despite the fact that they lost their veto-proof Senate majority. Reconciliation was originally intended for budgetary matters and requires only the approval of 51 senators.