Ten major questions on President Barack Obama’s healthcare summit

President Barack Obama’s summit on Thursday represents either a new beginning in the healthcare debate or the beginning of the last chapter of a failed effort to reform the nation’s healthcare system.

The president has invited a bipartisan group of lawmakers to the Blair House on Thursday for a six-hour discussion on a way forward on reform, and many view it as the White House’s last, best chance to get a significant piece of legislation passed in the 111th Congress.

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There are many questions heading into the summit. Here are 10 of them.

1. How deferential will Republicans be to the president on his home turf?

Both sides showed that they can be respectful of each other when the cameras were on during last month’s presidential visit to the Republican retreat in Baltimore. 

But the GOP has been intensely critical of every facet of Thursday’s retreat, and on Wednesday that showed little sign of abating when House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced a GOP congressional “Truth Squad” that will be ready to pounce if Democrats start exaggerating or mischaracterizing the party’s proposals.

2. Who will win the debate?

Obama won the Baltimore showdown, but Republicans will be more prepared this time around. 

The sausage-making aspect of healthcare reform is anything but simple, and Republicans have the advantage because the onus is on the president. 

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs declined to say this week whether Obama had been doing dress rehearsals for the summit, but he did say the president was briefed on the GOP’s proposals by Nancy-Ann DeParle, the president’s healthcare czar. 

3. What happens next in the message war?

The White House has refused to say what, if anything, the president will do to tout healthcare reform following Thursday’s summit. Obama is scheduled to travel to Georgia early next week.

Republicans have been winning the message battles on healthcare since last summer and, given the machinations of the Obama White House, it is likely that the president’s closing remarks will be written long before the final GOP lawmaker has his or her say. The future of healthcare reform will lie in how convincingly Obama can claim victory and how quickly and effectively he can paint Republicans as obstructionists.

4. Who will win the endurance contest?

A six-hour televised back-and-forth between a president and his opposition is virtually unheard of and allows for the potential for numerous gaffes and confrontations.

The president rolling up his sleeves and digging in to solve a problem with his critics at the table is a political strategist’s dream come true. Simply by being there and looking committed, Obama is likely to win some points. But it remains to be seen whether the public crediting Obama for effort will translate into votes from skeptical Democrats and the GOP.

Republicans, on the other hand, will be in the tough position of spending those six hours — including a buffet lunch — defending their approach and criticizing the president’s policies while avoiding falling into any traps that make them appear hyper-partisan.

5. Does Obama have anything up his sleeve? 

Republicans have worried throughout this month that the summit is a trap that could result in a 180-degree turn in momentum. Obama’s health proposal, released on Monday, didn’t have any real surprises, but he could throw some type of curveball at Republicans while the cameras are rolling. 

Aside from a broad outline of four major topics, the White House has shown little of its hand as to what the day will look like. Advantage: White House.

6. How will the GOP demonstrate unity on solutions?

The House GOP will point to John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) bill, but Senate Republicans never settled on a single strategy and there is plenty of disagreement within the party on what, if anything, the federal government should do on healthcare. 

The White House has hammered away at the idea that Republicans don’t have a plan to bring to the table. Even though Boehner and other Republicans, including summit participants Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and Paul Ryan (Wis.), have introduced healthcare bills, the GOP has not coalesced behind a single set of solutions.

7. Will the dissension among Democrats show through, especially the mistrust between the House and Senate?

Congressional Democratic leaders and their rank-and-file members have been pointing fingers across the Capitol since Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) snatched the Democrats’ 60th Senate vote last month. 

Democrats in both chambers insist the other must act first, slowing efforts to get healthcare back on track, and House Democrats are irked that Obama favors the Senate bill. If Republicans exploit this tension and foment disagreements among Democrats, the image of unity Obama has projected could be shattered. Areas that the GOP could concentrate on include immigration-related provisions and abortion. 

8. Will America get bored?

The White House thinks Obama landed a huge PR win in Baltimore and is counting on an even bigger one Thursday. But are viewers really interested in a wonky six-hour gabfest that the GOP is already calling an infomercial? 

9. Will Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) go toe-to-toe?

Since returning to the Senate, McCain has become one of Obama’s biggest critics, rarely missing an opportunity to attack the president. If the public is presented with Campaign 2008 redux, will voters be reminded why they chose Obama over McCain — or will they wish they had a chance for a do-over?

10. Is there any chance of a bipartisan deal?

There’s a chance, but it’s a very small one. The next step is likely passing a bill through reconciliation, which the GOP strongly opposes.

And so the summit could just turn into a dress rehearsal of sorts for the election. The summit presents an opportunity to fire some old and fresh partisan zingers. Who will land the best shot? Who will go too far? Will Republicans refer to Obama’s plan as “socialized medicine”? Will Democrats claim the GOP is the “party of no”?