The Politics Behind The Bipartisan Health-Care Summit

Let's be honest here: Today's White House summit on health care is not going to result in putting aside the differences among President Obama, congressional Democrats and congressional Republicans. Nor, perhaps, is that their goal.

There's no denying that the White House and the Democrats want a health care bill, and Republicans do not. The confusing part is what the American people want. Polls show they clearly desire change in the current situation — regarding costs, eligibility, coverage. And the recent 39 percent health insurance rate increase by Anthem Blue Cross of California was tailor-made for Obama to make his case. But is the Obama/Democratic bill the way to go? That's the debate you'll hear today, starting at 10 a.m., at the extraordinary televised health care summit at the Blair House.

Obama's decision to hold this summit and invite Republicans is an outgrowth of the successful session he held with House Republicans last month in Baltimore. By most accounts, it was an Obama triumph. The inclusion of a C-Span camera, decided by Obama at the last minute, was a brilliant move; the camera was constantly on the president, while the House Republicans appeared only as voices in the background. You always saw the president's face, and so whenever he was pleased or dismissive or earnest, we saw it on TV.

This time, Republicans realize Obama's power as the Great Communicator and won't let the president command the stage the way he did in Baltimore. The way they negotiated the seating arrangements at Blair House, it brought back memories of the Paris Peace Talks of '68 — battling over the shape of the table, who sits where, stuff like that.

But if one audience is the American people, the other one may well be Obama's fellow Democrats. Perhaps another reason for today's summit is that the White House is tired of headlines showing the Democrats beating each other up all the time; let's show the Dems united against the heartless Republicans!

But the Democrats are far from united on this. The battle for 60 votes in the Senate — now all but impossible with last month's election in Massachusetts — revives the debate over whether to turn to the reconciliation process, by which the Democrats could pass a health-care measure with a simple (rather than a super) majority — 51 votes. Not every Democrat wants to go that route. But it may be the only way to pass a measure in the Senate.

That having said, what about the House? There are seemingly more divisions there, both between House Dems and Senate Dems, and House Dems with House Dems. Last November, the House passed their version by a 220-215 margin. Only one Republican, Joseph Cao of Louisiana, voted for the measure; he has since said he won't vote for it again. Among the Democrats, John Murtha (D-PA) has since died, Robert Wexler (D-FL) has quit, and on Friday, Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) is resigning to run for governor. With the vacancies, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi knows the number to pass the measure is down to 217.

And then there's Bart Stupak, the Michigan Democrat who pushed through an anti-abortion measure to the House version. When Obama announced his version of the legislation on Monday, the Stupak Amendment was nowhere to be found, and the Michigan lawmaker says he can't vote for it. The question is how many pro-life Dems he brings with him.

There is, of course, tons at stake for the Republicans as well. Are they the party of no, or do they offer an alternative? Will they overreach — think Newt Gingrich and the shutdown of the government in 1995 — or will they be able to reach out to the dubious public with a clear argument about what they see as the dangers of the Obama/Dem plan?

Lots of questions. After today's six hour summit, I suspect few answers.

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