White House summit allows Dems to hit reset button on healthcare reform

President Barack Obama's health summit didn't change any votes, but it did give Democrats a new beginning in their effort to reform the nation's healthcare system.

Thursday's bicameral, bipartisan summit was so unusual that it dominated the entire week's news cycle and took the media's attention off of Sen. Scott Brown's (R) stunning win in Massachusetts.

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Lacking political capital after losing their supermajority in the Senate, dazed Democrats said they had no idea what their next step on health reform would be. While ramming health reform through using the majority-vote tactic of reconciliation has always been an option, Democrats could not publicly ponder using the partisan tactic after Brown won Sen. Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) seat.

But the summit has altered the political landscape.

Earlier this month, the chances of comprehensive health reform passing by June 30, 2010, hovered in the low 30s, according to the Intrade Prediction Market. The odds have since jumped to 44 percent.

Even though the summit attracted headlines such as "deadlock" and "stalemate," it accomplished many of Obama's goals.

The White House was well aware that Republicans and Democrats were not going to reach a deal at the seven-hour-plus meeting. The summit was intended to turn the page on the Democrats' 2009 mistakes on health reform and improve their message heading into what will likely be a bitter reconciliation battle.

Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), acknowledged that the summit didn't attract GOP votes. They did point out that it increased the chances that a bill will be signed into law in 2010.

The key difference for Democrats is that they are back playing offense on health reform after weeks on the defensive following Brown's win. The summit has provided hints that Democrats can take a punch -- something that wasn't clear in late January and the early days of February.

The White House and congressional leaders last year were wary of upsetting liberals in their comments on the public option. But this week, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) all said the public option doesn't have the votes to pass -- effectively killing a debate that divided Democrats throughout 2009. Intrade now puts the chances of a public option passing at less than 3 percent.

Republicans point to polls showing that Americans are firmly against the Democrats' plans on healthcare reform. Some privately have said they hope Democrats continue to pursue a reform bill, claiming that will translate into more GOP wins in the midterm elections.

Obama will again look to keep the focus on healthcare next week when he makes an announcement on how the debate should move forward.

Gibbs declined to offer any hints as to what Obama might say.

"I think this is a fairly dynamic process that will happen over the next several days," Gibbs said.


It is widely expected that Obama will endorse the use of reconciliation to get a health bill to his desk. In recent days, Democrats who have previously warned against reconciliation have softened their stance. Those shifts are likely not coincidental.

Toward the end of the summit, Obama pointed out that the two parties could not "bridge the gap" on several major issues.

"It clarified that Democrats and Republicans are living on different planets," said Ross Baker, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at Rutgers University.

Baker said he sees the conversation exactly where it needs to be, and by taking a larger role in the debate Obama might have helped unify Democrats.

"He made clear he is willing to stake the White House on healthcare reform legislation," Baker said.

The president largely deferred to the Democratic-controlled Congress last year, a move that some rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers said was a huge mistake. Now, congressional leaders are deferring to Obama, effusively praising his leadership and the health plan he issued on Monday.