Expectations Low For Obama's Health Care Summit

President Obama's plan to hold a televised health overhaul summit with Republicans and Democrats is still more than two weeks away, but reviews of the get-together are already in. And they're not optimistic.

Critics are characterizing the plan as a purely political gambit designed to give the appearance of momentum for the president's health care bill, now stalled on Capitol Hill.

Supporters of the president — and the legislation — say the bipartisan give-and-take will provide Obama the opportunity to publicly portray the opposition as bereft of solutions.

At A Glance

  • Summit Date: Feb. 25
  • Republicans want to scrap the health care legislation that has already passed in the House and Senate, and start over from scratch.
  • Democrats say a do-over is not on the table. But they say that they see some room for working on Republican desires to pursue more aggressive tort reform, and to ease rules on selling insurance across state lines.

And it may also give cover, they say, to moderate Democrats who have pushed back at growing pressure to use the legislative procedural maneuver known as reconciliation to advance the legislation with simple majority votes in the Senate and House.

Democrats lost their 60-vote Senate supermajority — and their ability to pass their health care plan without a GOP filibuster — after Republican Scott Brown was elected last month to fill the seat of the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy.

Summit Stalemate

Few on either side of the aisle are predicting that the president's high-profile summit will be a vehicle to refashion health care legislation in a way that will attract any Republican votes — even though the president has promised to review suggestions made during the Feb. 25 meeting.

The Democrats' health care legislation has, so far, attracted zero Republican votes.

The GOP leadership says that reality is immutable — unless Obama opens his on-camera get-together by suggesting that health care negotiations start at square one.

Democrats say, however, that is simply not going to happen. There will be no start-over on health care legislation, says a top aide in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office.

It's a stand-off that the sit-down is unlikely to remedy.

"All the summit is going to do is remind people of the differences between the approaches of the two sides," says Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now, a national network advocating comprehensive health care reform, and supportive of the president's bill.

Stuart Butler, vice president for domestic and economic policy studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, agrees.

"I think this is designed for the president to show up what he feels to be weakness on the Republican side, and as a prelude to go much stronger with the base of his party," Butler says.

Everyone 'Playing To Their Base'?

The president announced his summit on the heels of his televised give-and-take with House Republicans during their recent meeting in Baltimore, which even conservatives like Butler characterized as turning out well for Obama.

"All the spinmeisters looked at that [meeting] and said that he used his presidential status effectively, and it was a good political exercise, from his point of view, to one-up the Republicans," Butler said.

This time, however, the Republicans will be ready, and "everybody will be playing to their base," he says.

The chances for making progress? Next to nil, he says.

"I've been arguing very hard for him to reach out, and I actually attended his first health care summit last year," Butler says. "But if you're in the marriage counseling business, you don't bring the couple together in front of TV cameras. In this case, you do it quietly, at the White House or Camp David."

Capitol Hill Democrats say the summit will provide Republicans one last chance to detail a comprehensive health care plan, and to work with the president on incorporating some — emphasis on some — of their ideas into an existing legislative framework.

Democrats say they see some room for working on Republican desires to pursue more aggressive tort reform, and to ease rules on selling insurance across state lines.

But not on much else.

"Not when the Republican strategy is to basically burn the house down, and then hope people will say, 'We're going to give the arsonist a chance to build a new house,' " Kirsch says.

The Democrats' talking point Monday, the day after Obama announced his summit during an interview with CBS' Katie Couric: Party leaders have already incorporated scores of GOP ideas into the existing health care bill.

Move Toward Reconciliation?

Since their party lost its 60th Senate vote, Democratic activists working on health care have been pushing congressional leaders to use the 25-year-old procedural maneuver of reconciliation to push through overhaul legislation.

The maneuver allows legislation, with some limits, to pass with simple majority votes.

A relatively common though contentious procedure, reconciliation allowed Republicans to push through controversial tax cuts in 2001 and an overhaul of welfare in 1996 without 60 votes in the Senate. It was used in 2003 to enact more tax cuts during a period of growing national deficits, and it was employed to create a children's health insurance program in 1997.

Democratic leaders appear to be hoping that Obama's summit will persuade moderates in their party squeamish about reconciliation that a good-faith outreach was made to get Republican support for the bill.

But Butler sees reconciliation as a loser for Democrats, given that it's an election year and that polls show a majority of Americans say they have soured on the health care overhaul.

"It would play to the hand of the Republicans," he says. "Given the circumstances, I cannot see this progressing on technicalities."

But Obama's base is impatient, Kirsch says, and highly doubtful that the GOP will arrive at the summit with anything meant to resolve the impasse.

"If [the summit] is helpful to get to the finish line, fine," he says. "But it's time for Democrats to use their majority and get it done."

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