- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Taken at their word, both Democrats and Republicans say they want to work together on a health care reform bill — but it’s not clear how a bipartisan summit at the White House later this month will accomplish that.

The pressure is on Democrats to reach out, now that they lost their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, but most are unwilling to scrap the bills that passed the House and Senate and go back to the drawing board.

But that’s exactly what Republicans are demanding. In a letter sent late Monday to the White House, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia said that if President Obama will not start over, they “would rightly be reluctant to participate” in the Feb. 25 summit he proposed.

For Mr. Obama, the summit — to be broadcast live — represents his first major attempt to revive his marquee initiative since Democratic leaders shelved the bills in the wake of Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts last month. While Mr. Brown has repeatedly vowed not to walk away from the issue, the winning endgame strategy remains elusive.

The summit appears to be part of Mr. Obama’s recent strategy to put Republicans on the spot and pressure them into cooperating or risk being portrayed as obstructionists.

“I want to consult closely with our Republican colleagues,” Mr. Obama told CBS news anchor Katie Couric in an interview that aired Sunday before the Super Bowl. “After the recess, which will be a few weeks away, I want to come back and have a large meeting, the Republicans and Democrats, to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward.”

But GOP reactions to the invitation underscore the fundamental impasse: Republicans say the only way to get the negotiations going is if Mr. Obama promises to start over.

“If we are to reach a bipartisan consensus, the White House can start by shelving the current health spending bill,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Mr. Boehner and Mr. Cantor said the president also should promise not to use reconciliation, a hard-nosed legislative process that could circumvent a Republican filibuster and allow Democrats to pass their bill with just 51 votes in the Senate.

“Eliminating the possibility of reconciliation would represent an important show of good faith to Republicans and the American people,” they said in their letter to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

For their part, Democrats say they have already bent over backwards to accommodate the minority and argue that they have incorporated Republican ideas into their versions of the overhaul.

“I reached out to Republicans on several occasions to solicit their ideas and feedback last year. I was, however, disappointed that these meetings did not result in any serious follow-through to work together in a bipartisan fashion,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

But other Democrats were not so optimistic about the idea of inviting Republicans to the negotiating table.

“Good luck with that,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat and a leading liberal voice on Capitol Hill. “The GOP has been the ‘Party of No’ all year.”

In the CBS interview, Mr. Obama did not say whether he is open to starting over.

“What I want to do is look at the Republican ideas that are out there, and I want to be very specific,” he said. “How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance markets so people with pre-existing conditions, for example, can get health care?”

The decision to broadcast the half-day bipartisan meeting comes as Mr. Obama faced criticism for not living up to his promise of transparency by holding all health care meetings, including negotiations between House and Senate leaders, in the open, as he had pledged on the campaign trail.

Mr. Obama last week said that much of the bill’s drafting did take place in the open since congressional hearings of jurisdiction were open to the public. But he said he should have done more to ensure that some of the subsequent closed-door meetings with congressional leaders were open.

Democrats were having trouble moving forward on the House and Senate bills even before Mr. Brown’s victory, as they contain differing approaches on several thorny issues, such as taxes and federal funding of abortion. But Mr. Obama has repeatedly said he does not intend to walk away from his agenda on health care, and an administration official echoed that Sunday.

“What the President will not do is let this moment slip away. He hopes to have Republican support in doing so — but he is going to move forward on health reform,” the official said.

Mr. Obama has planned a separate bipartisan meeting at the White House on Tuesday as part of a new initiative he announced during his State of the Union address to meet with leaders from both sides of the aisle and both chambers once a month.


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