President Barack Obama's call for a bipartisan health care summit was greeted with suspicion Monday by Congressional Republicans, who vowed to approach the televised Feb. 25 meeting with open minds even as they worried that the White House was using them as political "props."
Hill Democrats were equally cautious. They welcomed the bicameral leadership gathering — saying it was the type of presidential leadership that they've been looking for from Obama in their yearlong effort to enact health care reform legislation — but they speculated it might be coming too late to make a difference.
Still, Democrats were hopeful that Obama's summit would break the logjam over health care legislation, including an impasse that continues to divide liberal and moderate members of the majority. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, predicted the meeting would shine a light on GOP obstruction and encourage resistant Blue Dog Democrats to end their holdout.
"I think we win [moderates] over by having the obstinacy of the Republicans be clear and obvious," Grijalva said Monday in an interview. "For reluctant Democrats to be seen as siding with naysayers is probably not good."
Obama's goal of generating bipartisan cooperation at this late hour in the process, never mind a deal on health care reform, appears doubtful — at least if the president's plan is to try to garner Republican support for some combination of the large, comprehensive packages that cleared the House and Senate late last year.
A news release Monday by the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of conservative House GOP Members, declared that "the only constructive health care negotiations start with a blank sheet of paper."
Senate Republicans made the same argument, maintaining that any legislation anchored in the $871 billion package that cleared the chamber on Christmas Eve — or that is similar to the $1.2 trillion House bill — is a nonstarter.
"We're not at all interested in being stage props so this White House can attempt to appear reasonable without changing their direction," a senior Republican Senate aide said. "We'll show up with serious ideas and will not be impressed if they aren't taken seriously."
As of press time on Monday, the White House had yet to issue formal invitations to the health care summit, Democratic and Republican leadership aides said.
The president announced plans to hold the meeting on Sunday during a television interview with CBS news anchor Katie Couric. The White House and Congressional Democrats have been searching for a way to push health care reform over the finish line since Jan. 19, when the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) to succeed the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) ground their effort to an indefinite halt.
Brown's special election victory removed the Democrats' filibuster-proof Senate supermajority, stopping dead in its tracks a budding agreement between House and Senate Democratic leaders to reconcile competing health care packages approved late last year in each chamber. Those bills passed with no GOP votes save for one "aye" from Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (La.).
Democratic leadership aides said Obama's health care summit could only help a majority still struggling to get a reform bill to the president's desk. One senior Democratic Senate aide argued that the meeting would force the GOP to engage on policy, rather than just sit back and score political points by tearing down the majority's health care agenda.
"What's been lost in all of this is, the Republicans have been able to get away with staying on sidelines and criticizing Democratic proposals," the senior Democratic Senate aide said. "This gives us an opportunity to compare and contrast our proposals with theirs. And whenever the president engages, it brings it to another level."
A former Democratic Senate leadership aide described the health summit as "the president going on a dove hunt."
"He's going to flush out the Republicans and call their bluff and make the Democrats allow them in the room," the Democrat said. "Bottom line: He's being presidential finally, versus letting Congressional leadership screw this thing up. It's about time."
Republicans are viewing the upcoming health care session with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. They're wary of Obama's motives, cognizant that this sort of event plays to his political strengths and is designed to burnish his credentials as a bipartisan deal-maker.
But they also are excited at the opportunity to discuss their health care reform ideas in front of a nationally televised audience, which they think can help send a message that Congress' inability to act on health care is the fault of a Democratic majority that chose to shut them out.
GOP strategists are urging Republican Congressional leaders to move quickly to define their terms for a successful negotiation and are recommending that they come to the meeting armed with ideas and counterproposals. On Monday, it appeared as though Republican leaders were already heeding that advice.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) in a statement released Monday afternoon lauded Obama's call for bipartisanship on health care, saying, "If the point is to listen to Republican ideas and really consider them, the president's announcement is very welcome."
But, citing an Associated Press story that reported Obama was not prepared to start the process from scratch, Kyl warned that such a strategy would be unacceptable to the Republicans.
"Such preconditions suggest the White House is not serious about genuine negotiations," Kyl said. "A large majority of the American people strongly oppose the Democrats' massive bill, and Republicans will not abandon them."