Heading into healthcare summit, Republicans fear Obama trap

The White House’s unwillingness to discuss what steps will follow Thursday’s bipartisan healthcare summit is intensifying GOP worries that the party is walking into a public-relations trap.

Congressional Republicans have been wary from the beginning about how the summit might be portrayed, and their criticism has only increased since the release of President Barack Obama’s healthcare plan on Monday.

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White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Tuesday repeatedly refused to discuss any of Obama’s post-summit plans if the meeting fails to bring Democrats and Republicans together, even though all evidence indicates there will be no melding of the minds at Blair House.

Gibbs this week has repeatedly declined to “prejudge” the meeting’s outcome.

The day before the summit, in an unusual move, Gibbs did not brief reporters at all.

He has dismissed Republican criticism of the summit as “locker room” chatter.

“You always have a little bit of pre-game chatter,” Gibbs said on Tuesday, comparing Republicans to football players hyping themselves up before a big game.

Gibbs said the president is hopeful that healthcare reform will be more likely to pass when the summit ends, but declined to offer any specific reasons for optimism. He did say Republicans will be less inclined to attack Obama and his policies when they sit down face to face for six hours.

“I think it’s easier to fire away at each other when you’re not in the same room,” Gibbs said.

Some suspect Thursday’s summit is more about giving the president a forum to paint Republicans in an unflattering, obstructionist light. Obama has invited Republicans to a meeting and is expressing an openness to compromise even as he unveiled a proposal that hewed closely to Democratic legislative proposals on healthcare.

“It’s an interesting trap,” said Ross Baker, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at Rutgers University.

He said the White House has created a favorable atmosphere for Obama, who can appear to be extending an olive branch even as Democrats prepare to shut the minority out.

“It’s kind of a festival of Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship, and Republicans are reluctant participants,” Baker said.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the summit amounts to little more than a six-hour “infomercial” for the president’s healthcare plan, and the GOP has sought to frame the summit in a number of negative ways.

“The fact that the White House sees this summit as a simple PR event proves they aren’t listening to the demands of a majority of Americans, who want to scrap the bill and start over with a blank piece of paper and a step-by-step approach to fixing the problems with our healthcare system,” one Senate Republican aide said Wednesday.

“Political traps” don’t count as “change you can believe in,” said the aide, mocking Obama’s campaign slogan.

“The fact that no one can definitively characterize the White House effort as a genuine attempt to fix healthcare is telling. And it’s certainly not changing the way Washington works,” the aide said.

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Whether it’s a trap or not, Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein said that the summit “is a smart move by the White House and probably their best hope to keep healthcare afloat.”

“It’s only a trap if Republicans are dumb in their approach to it,” Gerstein said, adding that the GOP needs to be prepared with its own proposals but cautious not to appear too hyperpartisan.

“The problem is [Obama’s] better on his feet than most of [the Republicans] and will probably win a straight-up debate if they don’t come armed with ideas,” Gerstein said.

The bigger risk is for Democrats, Gerstein said, because they are and have been losing the healthcare debate. Obama needs a win Thursday; Republicans can live with a draw.

“People need to step back and realize that Republicans are winning on this issue,” Gerstein said. “Democrats are losing badly.”

Many on Capitol Hill have said they view Thursday’s summit as a last chance for Obama to portray himself as reaching out to Republicans before Democrats pursue moving a healthcare bill through the Senate via special budget rules requiring only a bare majority vote.


White House officials indicated this week that if Republicans are unwilling to compromise on Thursday, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

In the run-up to the summit, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) upped the ante provided by the White House earlier in the week by laying the groundwork for a defense of reconciliation.

On Wednesday, the DNC began distributing what looked like talking points that can be used to portray anti-reconciliation Republicans as hypocrites because they voted for such measures in the past.

In turn, Republicans were only too happy to remind reporters that as a senator, Obama spoke out against bypassing filibusters.

“You know, the Founders designed this system, as frustrating as it is, to make sure that there’s a broad consensus before the country moves forward,” Obama said in 2005.

“And what I worry about would be you essentially have still two chambers — the House and the Senate — but you have simply majoritarian absolute power on either side, and that’s just not what the Founders intended,” Obama said.