- The Washington Times - Monday, February 22, 2010

The prospect of this week’s White House summit on health care sorting out thorny policy decisions and resuscitating the overhaul without wholesale changes are slim.

But Democrats and health care advocates believe the televised summit, planned for Thursday, could provide momentum and political cover to President Obama and lawmakers eager to restart the stalled effort.

“I’m not optimistic that this summit will change what appears to be opposition to anything that President Barack Obama supports,” National Coalition on Health Care’s Ralph Neas said of Republicans. “That doesn’t mean that it could not be successful on other levels. The ultimate goal is to get consensus on substantive health care reform.”

President Obama announced the bipartisan health summit earlier this month in an attempt to mollify two of the chief criticisms of the health plan - that Democrats didn’t listen to Republican ideas and that the negotiating sessions were not televised, a violation of a campaign pledge he made. The top Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill and the relevant committees were invited.

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Republicans are skeptical that the summit is a real attempt at negotiation and have not said whether they will offer an alternative proposal.

But with the White House expected to release a plan it hopes Democrats can support and Republicans firmly opposed to any of the Democrats’ proposals, few health policy experts or lawmakers expect the summit to lead to policy compromises.

“Apparently, we’re going to be there most of the day and have an opportunity to have a lot of discussion,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on “Fox News Sunday.” “But if they’re going to lay out the plan they want to pass four days in advance, then why are - what are we discussing on Thursday?”

If they show up empty-handed, “that will lead the public to believe that the only views Republicans have on health reform is ‘no,’” said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a liberal health care advocacy group that supports the Democrats’ plans. “I believe this will galvanize Democrats on Capitol Hill to move forward.”

Republicans have steadfastly opposed a large comprehensive bill and prefer a step-by-step approach that includes proposals such as tort reform and allowing insurers to sell across state lines. They have several small-scale bills.

“For those families and small businesses looking for a sign that Washington is ready to wake up and find common sense on this issue, next week’s White House health care summit may not be it,” Rep. Dave Camp, Michigan Republican and ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in this weekend’s Republican address. “If the starting point for this summit is more of the same backroom deals and partisan bills, then this meeting will likely be a charade.”

Democrats, meanwhile, appear to be pursuing a plan that could be passed through reconciliation, a complicated procedural tool that allows lawmakers to circumvent the chance for a Republican filibuster. The bill would only have to pass with 51 votes, but could not include many of the policy initiatives that don’t have to do with the budget.

The White House is expected to release a plan based on negotiations that took place between the House and Senate up until the election of Sen. Scott Brown, Massachusetts Republican, in a special election last month that shook up Capitol Hill.

But Mr. Obama, in his weekly address, asked lawmakers from both sides to come to the meeting with open minds.

“I don’t want to see this meeting turn into political theater, with each side simply reciting talking points and trying to score political points,” he said. “Instead, I ask members of both parties to seek common ground in an effort to solve a problem that’s been with us for generations.”

While reconciliation is a controversial tool, advocates of the idea point to it being used to pass welfare reform, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and President Bush’s tax cuts.

Under the reconciliation plan, the House would pass the Senate’s health bill as it is, and then both chambers would pass another bill to “fix” things lawmakers don’t like in the Senate legislation.

The Senate would have to pass its bill through reconciliation because Mr. Brown’s surprise win last month stripped Democrats of their 60-vote supermajority needed to block a filibuster.

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