Democrats Skeptical Health Care Summit is Answer

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Obama's healthcare battleFirst he called congressional Democrats’ yearlong march toward health
care overhaul an ugly process. Now President Barack Obama wants to talk
directly with Republicans, the very people his Capitol Hill allies call
obstinate and uncooperative.

It’s no wonder Democratic lawmakers are less than enthusiastic about Obama’s overture to the GOP.

The president has blamed special deals cut on Capitol Hill for the public’s skepticism about health
care legislation, distancing himself from what he’s called “this
Congress,” even though his White House was closely involved in the
process. For their part, some congressional Democrats clamored for
stronger leadership from Obama after an upset loss in a special
election last month denied Democrats their filibuster-proof Senate
majority, plunging the
health overhaul into disarray.

SOURCE: The Associated Press (c) 2010

But with the legislation languishing, the bipartisan health
care summit Obama has set for later this month almost has to break the
logjam, even if neither Democrats nor Republicans are particularly
excited about it. Either the two parties come together against all odds
or the event demonstrates that no bipartisan outcome is possible,
spurring Democrats to act alone. Or, the summit is a bust and the
entire
health care overhaul falls apart.

“I
think this is sort of his last-ditch effort” at a bipartisan deal, said
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor
Committee.

“Unless there’s a dramatic change by the Republicans,
I don’t think that we’ll see much change,” Miller said. But, he added,
“the president believes this is important. I don’t disagree with what
he’s trying to do.”

Democrats see a few scenarios that could
emerge from the Feb. 25 event, planned as a half-day televised forum.
Details on attendees and format remain scant.

One possibility is that Republicans make a poor showing at the summit, emboldening Democrats to strong-arm their sweeping health
legislation through Congress with no GOP votes, which would require the
use of controversial rules in the Senate. Another is that Democrats
find a way to incorporate some Republican proposals, such as curbs on
medical malpractice lawsuits, into legislation. Then they’d essentially
call Republicans’ bluff by forcing them to vote on it.

Less
plausibly, in the view of Democrats, Obama could emerge from the event
with an agreement with Republicans and move to pass legislation with
bipartisan support that surely would be far narrower in scope than what
Democrats have been aiming for. A number of Republicans have made
overtures in that direction, including an invitation from Sen. Judd
Gregg, R-N.H., to Obama to work together toward shared goals of
expanding coverage and reducing costs.

Finally, although most
Democrats are reluctant even to say it, the summit could stand as a
piece of political theater but fail to create the impetus needed to
pass any legislation, effectively sounding the death knell on the
health care overhaul.

If
White House officials have charted any one of these endgames, they’re
not saying. Obama has returned to striking the bipartisan notes he hit
when the
health overhaul drive began almost exactly a year ago. But for members of both parties, those notes have soured.

“This
is how the whole thing started to begin with. We had a bipartisan
summit at the same time last year, and we didn’t end up in a very good
place,” said Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., a moderate who voted against
the
health legislation in the House. “And that was when the political climate was much different” ? more favorable to Democrats and Obama.

House
and Senate Republican leaders greeted the summit announcement with
calls for scrapping the existing Democratic-passed bills and starting
over. The top two House Republicans suggested they might not even
attend. That raised Democrats’ skepticism about whether the summit
could bear bipartisan fruit.

“If this is basically a game where
you’re going to insist upon a (fresh) start with a clean sheet of paper
all over again, then frankly it won’t amount to much, this effort,”
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said.

Many Democrats believe the likeliest way forward is for the House to pass the Senate health
care bill, and then for both chambers to pass a package of changes to
fix elements House Democrats don’t like, including a tax on high-value
insurance plans opposed by organized labor and a special Medicaid deal
for Nebraska.

The package of changes could pass under rules
allowing for a simple majority vote in the Senate, rather than the
60-vote supermajority Democrats lost with Massachusetts Republican Sen.
Scott Brown’s election. Work continues behind closed doors to craft the
package, with lawmakers aiming to finish it ahead of the summit.

Moderate
Democrats in both chambers are cool to the simple majority approach,
which surely would infuriate Republicans and risks being perceived as a
partisan gambit.