Tuesday, February 9, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican leaders expressed renewed skepticism Tuesday about President Barack Obama’s call for a bipartisan forum on health care, raising questions about how much can be achieved at the televised event later this month.

After meeting with Obama at the White House to discuss jobs, House and Senate GOP leaders told reporters there might be room for bipartisan accord on that topic. They were much more dubious about health care, however, the president’s signature issue that has been bottled up in Congress for weeks.

“It’s going to be very difficult to have a bipartisan conversation with regard to a 2,700-page health care bill that the Democrat majority in the House and the Democrat majority in the Senate can’t pass,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. “It really is time to scrap the bill and start over.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made similar remarks, even though the White House says Obama has no plans to start the process from scratch.

With the two sides at such odds, some Republican activists privately worry that their party’s leaders might be walking into a trap on Feb. 25 designed to portray their health care proposals as thin.

If so, a shaky showing by GOP leaders event could possibly embolden congressional Democrats to make a final, aggressive push to overhaul the nation’s health care system, with or without any Republican votes.

Some Republicans doubt that scenario, saying Democrats have lost momentum for any plan that’s certain to draw fierce criticism. But they noted that the White House has not backed away from its support of legislation similar to what the Democratic-controlled House and Senate passed separately last year over strong GOP objections.

“This is a clever tactic by the president to try to put the Republicans on the defensive,” said John Feehery, a GOP consultant and former congressional aide.

The House’s top two Republican leaders openly questioned Obama’s sincerity and hinted they might skip the meeting if he uses the Democratic bills as the starting point for discussions.

“Assuming the president is sincere about moving forward on health care in a bipartisan way, does that mean he will agree to start over?” said a letter to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel from Boehner and GOP Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.

“If the starting point for this meeting is the job-killing bills the American people have already soundly rejected, Republicans would rightly be reluctant to participate,” Boehner and Cantor wrote.

That’s how conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh sees it. He says Republicans should not be afraid of being called naysayers on health care — they should wear the label proudly. “Negotiating with Obama is a waste of time,” Limbaugh said on his program Monday. “All it’s doing is helping him fulfill a photo-op promise of having this stuff televised, and it’s also to set (Republicans) up as the reason this didn’t pass.”

They asked Obama to rule out using “budget reconciliation” rules, which could allow Democrats to enact some health care provisions with a simple Senate majority, not the 60-vote super majority needed to overcome Republican delaying tactics. Democrats control 59 of the Senate’s 100 seats.

White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said the president will not rule out using reconciliation, but is sincere in wanting to hear Republicans’ ideas.

In announcing his call for the bipartisan event in a CBS News interview Sunday, Obama was vague when asked whether he was willing to start from scratch on health care. But the White House circulated talking points saying the president is “adamant about passing comprehensive reform similar to the bills passed by the House and the Senate” shortly before Democrats lost their filibuster-proof Senate majority.

All presidents command a bully pulpit, and Democrats feel Obama was especially nimble in parrying House Republicans’ arguments and criticisms at a Jan. 29 televised event. The Feb. 25 setting could offer him a similar chance to spar with his critics.

Liberal groups hope Americans will see the Republicans as obstructionists, possibly encouraging Democrats to use their still-sizable congressional majorities to enact their health care proposals via the budget reconciliation rules, without GOP help.

If the Feb. 25 meeting clarifies the sharp differences between the two parties, “that might be helpful,” said Richard Kirsch of the liberal Heath Care for America Now.

But some Republicans said Obama runs the risk of appearing insincere if he convenes the bipartisan gathering without showing greater willingness to shelve or greatly change his party’s proposals.

Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Ben Feller contributed to this report.

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