Obama invites Republicans to summit on health care

President Obama holds up a document of GOP solutions given by House Minority Leader John A. Boehner last month.
President Obama holds up a document of GOP solutions given by House Minority Leader John A. Boehner last month. (Charles Dharapak/associated Press)
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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010

President Obama moved to jump-start the stalled health-care debate Sunday, inviting Republicans in Congress to participate in a bipartisan, half-day televised summit on the subject this month.

The president made the offer in an interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric hours before the network televised the Super Bowl. Obama challenged Republicans, who have been largely unified in opposing his proposals, to bring their best ideas for how to cover more Americans and fix the health insurance system to the public discussion.

"I want to consult closely with our Republican colleagues," Obama said. "What I want to do is to ask them to put their ideas on the table. . . . I want to come back and have a large meeting, Republicans and Democrats, to go through, systematically, all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward."

The invitation to meet together on Feb. 25 -- and to do so live in front of the American public -- represents an effort by Obama to hit the reset button on the top domestic priority of his first year in office. It also reflects a recognition that he must have at least some Republican support if he hopes to see health-care reform pass.

Democratic efforts to push a final health bill through the Congress without Republican support fell apart last month when the president's party lost its filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate. Scott Brown, the newly elected Republican senator from Massachusetts, campaigned against what he called the Democratic Party's costly government takeover of the health-care system.

But it remains unclear whether a single discussion can begin to bridge the political and substantive policy divide with Republicans, who view their united front against the Democratic bills as a key to their political recovery. Obama also gave little indication during the interview that he is ready to abandon the basic direction his party took on health care.

GOP leaders on Sunday said they welcomed the outreach but called it evidence that Obama knows he must start over if he wants to earn their support going forward.

In a statement, House Republican leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) said that he looks forward to the discussion, and that he is "pleased that the White House finally seems interested in a real, bipartisan conversation on health care. . . . The best way to start on real, bipartisan reform would be to scrap those bills and focus on the kind of step-by-step improvements that will lower health care costs and expand access."

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said he welcomed "the opportunity to share ideas with the president," adding that "we know there are a number of issues with bipartisan support that we can start with when the 2,700-page bill is put on the shelf."

White House aides quickly rejected the idea that Obama wants to start over after nearly a year of contentious legislative haggling among members of his party. Officials said the president will come to the health-care summit armed with a merged version of the two bills that Democrats strong-armed through the two chambers with almost no GOP backing.

"This is not starting over," one White House official said, who requested anonymity in order to discuss administration strategy. "Don't make any mistake about that. We are coming with our plan. They can bring their plan."

The official added: "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."

That declaration could help reassure Obama's Democratic allies, who have expressed frustration that he was essentially abandoning the health-reform effort in favor of a new focus on the economy and jobs.

The White House has played down the health-care subject since Brown's election to fill the seat vacated by the late Edward M. Kennedy. Obama made only a brief mention of the issue during his State of the Union speech last month. In a speech at a Democratic fundraiser last week, he urged patience, saying, "I think we should be very deliberate, take our time."

In separate statements Sunday, Democratic leaders praised the president for calling the bipartisan summit but made clear they are not prepared to give up on the progress they made last year.

"As we continue our work to fix our broken health care system, Senate Democrats will not relent on our commitment to protecting consumers from insurance company abuses, reducing health care costs, saving Medicare and cutting the deficit," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement shortly after the interview.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) pledged that the House and the Senate "will continue to work between now and February 25th to find a common approach between the House and the Senate on these solutions."

Since Brown's election, House and Senate Democrats have struggled to find an alternative path for finishing the legislation. The most obvious solution was to pass the Senate bill through the House. But the Senate bill includes several provisions that many House members dislike, including a tax on high-value insurance plans that would hit some union households.

Instead, Pelosi and Reid have sought to negotiate fixes to the Senate bill that the Senate could approve under special budget rules to protect the package from a GOP filibuster. Then the House could pass the fixes, along with the Senate bill. But numerous moderate Senate Democrats have protested the highly unusual approach as overly partisan, raising doubts that Reid can find the 51 votes he needs to push the fixes through the Senate.

The impasse has created tensions between the House and Senate in recent days and had led White House officials to look for a fresh course. The summit idea was viewed as a way to reengage Republicans, bring the debate into public view and remind voters of the most popular provisions in the bill.

The president's proposed half-day summit, which aides said could take place at the historic Blair House across the street from the White House, comes just weeks after he received high marks for engaging the House Republicans in a televised, 90-minute discussion at their retreat in Baltimore. The president has been hammered by critics who said his year-long push to revamp the health-care system did not live up to his campaign promise to conduct the debate in the open.

Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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