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Obama's Health Care Summit: The Sham Before the Storm?

5 years ago
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Enough of this bipartisan shilly-shally; it's time to crash the health care reform bill over the finish line -- by any means possible -- and move the heck on . . . . Oh, sorry, that was supposed to be the lead for Friday's column, the one coming out after Thursday's White House health care summit. Yet there's no reason not to get an early start.

It's pretty darn tough not to approach this big hoe-down with mucho skepticism. After all, there's a fundamental reality at play in the battle over health care reform. The Democrats in the White House and Congress have a plan they mostly agree on, and the Republicans want nothing to do with it. No jawboning will change that.

Still, President Obama has invited congressional Republicans to Blair House for a six-hour sit-down. What's the point? At the White House daily briefing on Tuesday, press secretary Robert Gibbs said repeatedly the aim is to have an "honest discussion" about the best way to fix the nation's troubled health care system. But hasn't there been a year-long discussion already? It included hours of debate within House and Senate committees, hours of negotiations between Democratic and Republican senators that led to nothing, hours of debate on the House and Senate floor. Obama and the House GOPers covered health care reform during their historic Q&A session at a Republican retreat last month. There have been presidential speeches, scores of op-eds, a cacophony of cable chattering, a blitz of blogs, and maybe a trillion tweets.

Why more discussion? And how honest can it be? On Tuesday, House Republican Whip Eric Cantor called Obama's approach to health care "insanity." And House Republican leader John Boehner accused the president of having "crippled" the summit by releasing earlier this week his proposal, a modified version of the Democratic-backed legislation that was approved in the Senate with 60 votes and no Republican backers. These particular Republicans don't want a conversation; they want to kill the House and Senate bills that have passed. Cantor declared Obama's plan "is a non-starter." Boehner claimed, "The American people have spoken: They want us to scrap the Democrats' health care bill and start over." But a plan based on legislation already approved by a majority of legislators is actually a pretty good starter.

The Republicans do have a point: The White House is not playing it straight when it says Obama will come to the summit with an "open mind." He's already made fundamental calls. He has eschewed a public option. He has declared his support for an excise tax on high-end insurance plans (an idea despised by most House Democrats). At the summit, Obama is not going to listen to a Republican argue against his proposal for a new federal authority that will help states regulate health care premiums and reply, "Hey, the guy's got a point. Let's dump it."

At the same time, Republicans are not likely to say, "We realize you were elected president by a decisive majority after running on health care reform and your party has sizable majorities in both parties. So we will give you bipartisan cover for this endeavor if you make a couple of medium-sized changes to your plan. How can we work this out amicably?"

The sides appear far too apart for any bipartisan miracle. And though Gibbs has repeatedly called Obama's just-released plan a "starting point," it is really a culmination that follows a year of intense scuffling. Moreover, can the White House expect any substantial progress with the GOP when Gibbs maintains that the Republican response to Obama's proposal is irrational? Let's be real.

So the summit will be both show and showdown. Obama will make it appear he is reaching out to the Republicans. The GOPers will try to depict the president as stubbornly moving ahead with a lousy plan. Each side will contend the other is being more partisan than bi.

Yet the time for bipartisanship is done. The Republicans think their opposition to Obamacare is a winning ploy. They're not going to abandon it. And Obama's not going to trash his signature issue. So once the summit concludes, it's back to the real show: power politics. If Obama and the Dems want major health care reform legislation, they will have to run over the not-dead bodies of Republicans. To do so, they will likely need to employ reconciliation, a legislative procedure that allows the House and Senate Democrats to resolve the differences between their already-passed bills on a majority vote (and duck a Republican filibuster). This is a slightly complicated maneuver -- but quite feasible -- and Senate Democratic aides say they are close to rounding up at least 50 D's. But they're not there yet. Consequently, the real challenge for Obama is not conjuring up a last-minute bipartisan breakthrough at this summit, but getting his own party lined up and ready to roll.

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You can watch Jim Pinkerton and me discussing the health care summit on Bloggingheads.tv--and see us disagree on whether it will help or hurt the Democrats to pass health care reform legislation.


You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.
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