Cantor versus Rangel. Boehner versus Biden. Getting health care done versus more of the same. The White House summit to debate health care reform is being characterized as a political cage match with the highest of stakes. But the meeting is also a story of Obama versus Obama. Throughout the debate over what is now the signature legislative issue of his young presidency, Obama has tried to balance the cool-headed technocrat, preaching cost containment with Congressional Budget Office statistics, and the progressive true believer who once told America he was “fired up and ready to go.”
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Taking a page from the candidate Obama, the president circumvented a congressional stalemate and posted his own wishes for health care reform at the White House Web site in advance of Thursday’s big meeting, to be attended by key legislators from both parties. The draft, which is designed for passage in the next few weeks, generally follows the template set out by the bill passed by the Senate before Christmas 2009. It includes new, more populist regulations that punish insurers like Blue Cross in California that unexpectedly hike premiums, as well as the long-discussed provisions that cover more Americans, streamline medical administration, reduce long term deficits and prevent discrimination based on preexisting conditions.
There won’t be beer, and there might not even be cooperation. So why hold another “summit” at the White House?
Summiting an Uphill Battle
The official line from the administration is that they expect all parties to sit down, lions with lambs, and hash out a deal to address the broken health insurance system. “That's what the American people want Democrats and Republicans to do in Washington,” said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.
But it’s also a major test for the president, who has laid a landslide election’s worth of political capital on the line for the cause of health reform. Whether he likes it or not, the outcome of this summit will determine what he can get done in the time left to him in Washington, and how many Americans answer the question conservative critic Sarah Palin asked at the recent tea party convention in Nashville: “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for you?”
Republicans contend that their participation in the summit is mere political theater for a president obsessed with appearing to be bipartisan. Rep. John Boehner, the House minority leader, called the meeting “a Democratic infomercial for continuing on a partisan course that relies on more backroom deals and parliamentary tricks to circumvent the will of the American people.” They have posted their own version of health care legislation and are adamant that it be considered at the summit. "If we really want to create something that will work, we need to start from scratch on a new proposal," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
It remains to be seen whether Thursday’s meeting will be a sensible debate between colleagues or a publicly broadcast brawl.
The stalemate on health care has been a product of Democratic fears, Republican defiance and legitimate wrestling matches over the terms of a final bill. It’s also because Obama—aside from some grand speeches—has left the public-relations campaign up to unpopular legislators. Most of the factors leading to the stalemate still exist: compromises on excise taxes on benefits for so-called “Cadillac plans” that would disproportionately affect union families, or agreements on abortion and family planning coverage, for example, have yet to be reached. And Democratic senators continue to push for the once-dead “public option,” which would allow a government-administered insurance option to compete with private providers in new insurance exchanges.
Putting Pressure on the Party of “No”
But today, Obama can step into the spotlight and, for the first time, tell legislators exactly what he wants done. He can also look to the recent and surprising 70-28 Senate vote for a comprehensive job creation bill as a sign that Congress is finally getting serious about passing legislation—and he may have put an end Republican obstructionism.
It seems that Congress is learning to hold its nose for progress. “It's not a perfect bill. I would have liked broader and deeper tax cuts, but I was comfortable with that first vote,” Brown said, justifying an earlier vote he joined with four other moderate Republicans to support cloture for the stripped-down bill. "I believe this is the beginning of a new day in the Senate," Democratic majority leader Harry Reid said at the time. Eleven more Republicans flipped for the final vote.
This cooperation may just be a byproduct of Brown’s need to serve a state that still identifies as overwhelmingly Democratic. But it also reflects a shift in the political dynamics between progressives and conservatives of late: Slowly and surely, Obama is raising the costs for Republicans of being a party of “no.”
Obama schooled the Republicans on their own turf—making the House GOP look silly during the open question-and-answer session Obama at their annual retreat. Then the White House openly mocked the Republican plans for health care as “a collection of piecemeal and conflicting ideas.”
Meanwhile, liberal groups and commentators made an effective push to label key Republicans as hypocrites for voting against and then taking credit for jobs created by the 2009 federal stimulus legislation. And stories of extreme misery continue to pour in from the Great Recession, with unemployment still at 10 percent.
In this climate, stalling relief any further by voting against legislation that would invest in infrastructure, payroll tax breaks and small-business development just looks bad.
Time To Show and Prove
It’s this same political hardball that may pay off for an administration that has lost favor with the public as a direct result of its handling of health care reform. As with the jobs bill and the GOP retreat, the summit will require lawmakers to publicly put up or shut up. It will partially restore faith in Obama’s campaign promise to put health care debates on CSPAN. And it won’t hurt that the reforms promised by the Obama’s plan will both free up businesses to hire more workers and are estimated to create thousands of jobs in the health care and health IT sectors.
Most importantly, the president has a backup plan. He’d like his bill to be passed close to its current form by the House, amended by the Senate, and then signed into law as soon as possible. But if Republicans and moderate Democrats gum up the works in Congress once more, the White House has threatened to pass the bill through the budget reconciliation process that only requires 51 votes. According to White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, “the package is designed to provide us the flexibility to achieve that if the Republican Party decides to filibuster health reform.”
Though the summit will open the doors of Blair House to Republicans and to the American public, that’s not a bad card to have in your back pocket.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.