Democrats, Republicans try to agree on summit seat assignments

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An intense argument has been raging ahead of Thursday's health-care summit: Will President Obama and members of Congress sit around a U-shaped table or a round one?

Seat assignments are no small matter. The event is scheduled to be televised live for nearly six hours, and its outcome could be shaped by whoever gains command of the room -- or at least appears to from the vantage point of the four television cameras placed in carefully negotiated spots.

To that end, White House officials have been tussling with Republicans, and the television networks, over the arrangement of the room at Blair House, across the street from the White House.

The initial plan called for Obama and Vice President Biden to sit at the head of a U-shaped table, with some lawmakers seated in front of them like an audience. But Republicans balked and the idea was scrapped. On Tuesday, a White House official said the participants will be seated at tables in a "hollow square setup" -- an arrangement Republicans approved of, they said, because it would put them on even footing with the president.

The logistics were of such importance that Phil Schiliro, the head of White House legislative affairs, made at least two trips to Capitol Hill to brief Republicans and field complaints, a White House official said.

"It's like the Vietnam peace talks," said longtime reporter Ann Compton of ABC News, whose network was part of the negotiations over the number and location of cameras. "They spent more time arguing about the shape of the table than anything else."

Micromanaging political choreography isn't new. Every presidential campaign debate brings with it hours of talks about the height of the lecterns and the type of buzzer used to signal when a candidate runs out of time.

But the degree of interest in the details of Thursday's summit underscored the high stakes of the health-care effort -- as well as a new level of anxiety among House Republicans, whose retreat in Baltimore was upstaged last month when Obama unexpectedly opened the question-and-answer session to television cameras. With the president standing center stage throughout, the audience of Republicans came across as props, unseen lawmakers asking questions. The White House viewed the televised event as so successful that it inspired the idea of Thursday's summit.

A major difference between Baltimore and Blair House will be the format. Obama plans to make opening remarks at 10 a.m., followed by opening statements from one Democrat and one Republican. Hours of discussion will follow, White House officials said, broken into four subject areas: controlling medical costs (introduced by Obama); insurance reform (introduced by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius); deficit reduction (introduced by Biden); and expanding health coverage (introduced by Obama). The summit is expected to end around 4 p.m.

Although coffee breaks had been discussed, White House officials said the current plan includes only a lunch intermission. It is unclear whether Obama will stay to eat with the lawmakers -- a buffet will be served, now that boxed lunches have been ruled out -- or return to the White House for a midday break.

Also uncertain is how appealing a backdrop Blair House will provide. People who did a walk-through of the venue last week said the acoustics were challenging, with voices echoing loudly off the hardwood floors and concrete walls. The room is also relatively small, with a piano in one corner.

Only a partial list of attendees has been released, but it is clear the room will be full. Among the participants: Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and two doctor-lawmakers, Tom Coburn (Okla.) and John Barrasso (Wyo.); Democratic Sens. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), Max Baucus (Mont.), Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Patty Murray (Wash.); and Democratic Reps. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.), John D. Dingell (Mich.), Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), Xavier Becerra (Calif.) and Jim Cooper (Tenn.).

"We've been open to moving it across the street," one GOP aide said. "It's going to get hot and crowded in there, if you think about 50 people in a small, cramped room for six hours. They're just so wedded to this idea, but nobody can explain why Blair House. The East Room is beautiful."

White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer played down complaints. "We have worked constructively and cooperatively with the Republicans and the Democrats to make this as productive a session as possible," he said. Referring to the Republicans, he added, "We have briefed them on our plans along the way. They had some issues they wanted dealt with in terms of numbers of staffers . . . and we have gone along with their suggestions."

Press secretary Robert Gibbs took a tougher line when asked about the table debate, telling reporters: "If the biggest thing that we debate on Thursday is the shape of the table, then I could understand the utter disgust and contempt that the American people might have."

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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