Republicans, health groups have dim hopes for Obama healthcare summit

Proponents and critics of President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform platform are predicting that the upcoming bipartisan summit will not produce a breakthrough.

When Obama announced the bipartisan healthcare meeting Sunday on CBS News, he said he wants to “ask [Republican lawmakers] to put their ideas on the table.” GOP officials, meanwhile, think that is where their ideas will stay.

GOP leaders on both sides of the Capitol quickly agreed to join their Democratic counterparts and Obama at the event, but House Republicans are skeptical that anything will come of the televised summit at the end of the month.

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“If this is a stage show to push through or punch through a bill along the lines of the House and Senate bills that have already passed, I think the American people have already made it clear they are not interested,” said Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.).

Liberal healthcare reform advocates groused throughout the yearlong healthcare reform debate that Obama and Senate Democrats wasted time trying to attract Republican support. But now, eager to push ahead, they said they are fine with Obama’s move — even though they are skeptical.

“At this late date, it is hard to see how bipartisanship is going to occur,” said Ron Pollack, the executive director of the healthcare reform activism group Families USA. “Quite frankly, I don’t understand how this dialogue is going to move the process forward other than by demonstrating that the opposition only cares to derail reform.”

Liberals see the summit as a chance for Obama to be seen responding directly to Republican critiques and for him to critique their ideas. “It isn’t going to change the prospects of passing reform,” said Richard Kirsh, national campaign manager of Healthcare for America Now, a union-affiliated activism organization. “It’ll be one more chance for people maybe to understand that Republicans have no ideas to actually solve the healthcare crisis.”

House Republicans are fresh from an encounter with the president at their retreat in Baltimore last month, where he garnered rave reviews for his performance taking questions from GOP lawmakers on live television.

“It may be that the president came off looking pretty good during the Republican retreat and maybe they think there is a political gain to be had from this. My side needs to plan very carefully for this,” said Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas). “It’s a press event, not a policy event.”

Other Republicans were more blunt, questioning Obama’s motives. “It seems the only play the president knows how to run is a hollow PR blitz,” said Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “Republicans welcome honest discussion, but this event reeks of political gamesmanship.”

Republicans also griped that Obama surprised them by announcing the summit would be televised. “The White House leg[islative] affairs shop called Sunday afternoon to advise us that an interview with Katie Couric would be airing before the Super Bowl in which the president would announce bipartisan talks. They did not mention the talks would be televised,” a GOP leadership source stated.

Obama, who attracted widespread criticism for breaking his campaign promise to televise the health reform negotiations on C-SPAN, has vowed to ensure that the reform process would become more transparent.

Some have opined that Obama’s decision to hold the summit means that he wants to go back to square one. That claim is false, according to White House officials, who say Obama has made it plain he will not discard the bills already passed by the House and Senate, nor will he scale down his ambitions.

“If Republicans or anyone else has a plan for protecting Americans from insurance company abuses, lowering costs, reducing prescription drug prices for seniors, making coverage more secure and offering affordable options to those without coverage, he's anxious to see it and discuss the merits of it,” a White House official wrote in an e-mail to The Hill.

Congressional Republican leaders are insisting that Democrats need to shelve their House- and Senate-passed bill.

“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 healthcare costs and expand access,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

In spite of this evident gulf — and a year of deeply partisan debate characterized by near-total Republican opposition to the Democrats’ healthcare bills — the White House said it would be premature to predict the outcome of the bipartisan summit. “The meeting is two weeks away and we're not going to prejudge what’s going to happen,” the White House official stated.

After loudly calling for more transparency in the healthcare reform negotiations and attempting to fend off Democratic accusations that the GOP is the “party of no,” Republicans have little choice but to go along with Obama’s gambit, said Joseph Antos, a healthcare scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

“It would be embarrassing to say, ‘We’re not going to meet with him,’ ” Antos said, even if Republicans feel beforehand the summit will be no more than political theater. “It’s a play. Everybody has their part.”

But the meeting will have no practical effect on the legislation or the political landscape, Antos said. “He’ll declare he hasn’t heard a better idea. Republicans will say he wasn’t listening. Nothing’s changed.”

Ultimately, Democrats and Republicans are too far apart in their views of what is wrong with the healthcare system and what should be done to reform it, Antos said.