During a surprise visit to the White House briefing room on Tuesday afternoon, President Obama noted that "the public has soured on the process" that has produced separate-but-close Senate and House versions of health care reform legislation. And this souring, he said, "actually contaminates how [Americans] view the substance of the bills." Consequently, the president added, the bipartisan health care reform summit the White House is convening on Feb. 25 will move things along by showing the folks back home "that there is complete transparency and all of these issues have been adequately vetted and adequately debated."
Is that really what people want? More gabbing about health care -- and more squawking about which side is truly trying to be bipartisan? It's hard to see how another confab about health care reform is going to improve the approval ratings of "the process." There certainly won't be a grand bipartisan deal struck at this session. In fact, as Obama was talking to White House reporters, the office of Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican House whip, was firing off a press release deriding the summit as "a dog and pony show to trumpet failed bills that, in fact, the Democrats can't even pass." (Technical point, Mr. Whip: The bills did pass. But they have yet to be reconciled. That's the rub.)
Still, Cantor said the GOPers would show up at the summit -- in order to express their opposition to the Obama-backed bills. And the Republican Party has attacked the event as "political theater" designed to push Obama's "government takeover of health care."
Obama and the White House obviously realize that this get-together will not un-sour the process. So why do it? The obvious answer is this: The president is playing poker.
During his days as a state senator in Illinois, Obama participated
in a regular game with Democratic and Republican legislators and even some lobbyists. He was known as a cautious and focused player. He'd often fold if his hand was weak. But that meant that he often succeeded the rare times he bluffed.
Now he's bluffing.
Obama and his crew can't expect any real legislative gains to emanate from this summit. And they show no signs of looking to seriously recast the Democratic bills on the basis of the GOP input the president is courteously requesting. Obama and his aides must be hoping to win the sideshow battle over that ever-pressing question, who's really bipartisan? After all, he is inviting the opposition to present their ideas -- which will make him look accommodating. But he will note, as he did on Tuesday, that the existing Democratic bills did incorporate a few Republican proposals and that the GOPers have tried to put up a concrete wall regarding the legislation he favors. The goal: to use a bipartisan gathering to highlight GOP obstructionism.
Such gamesmanship, whether it works or not, won't cause Americans to lose their distaste of the process. But the White House probably calculates this is Obama's last shot to act like a gentlemen before he and the Democrats nail the Republicans by using a legislative procedure known as reconciliation (which only requires a majority vote) in order to pass revisions to the health care reform measures already approved that will allow the legislation to land on the president's desk for his signature.
This bluff is also filling time for Obama. Right now, parliamentarian experts for the House and Senate Democrats are attempting to figure out how this reconciliation strategy could work. (Trust me, it's complicated.) So not much else is happening -- especially with Snowpocalypse I and II hitting Washington the week before a week-long congressional recess.
As the Obama White House has observed in the past, when there's a lull in that sour legislative process, the foes of the president's health care overhaul get a good opportunity to fire away at it. The health care summit proposed by the White House is sort of a placeholder. It provides journalists and the politerati something to write, talk and argue about -- Exhibit A: this column -- and prevents the emergence of a void that would benefit the opponents of Obama's initiative.
So the summit is a two-fer for the White House: a forum in which Obama can attempt to win the bipartisan sweepstakes and a useful distraction. "The summit shows the president is prepared to go the extra mile," says a top Democratic Senate aide. "He can take charge of the narrative, while we Democrats still have to sort everything out. And if he can do all this convincingly, he will demonstrate to recalcitrant, squishy Democrats we're going forward."
The key phrase is "going forward." At some point, Obama will probably have to jettison the process PR and nudge -- or force -- action in Congress. The health care summit can buy him some time, while House and Senate Dems craft their endgame. Yet he could soon run out of bluff. Then he'll just have to play the cards he has.
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