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Hill Looks Past Health Summit

Fast-forward to Friday.

President Barack Obama’s bipartisan health care summit may take place today, but the defining moment will come the day after, when Democrats decide once and for all whether to go it alone to pass a bill.

“What’s on the table by Friday morning will be different than what’s there today,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said. “We’re keeping an open mind. There’s no need to make a decision yet” on how to proceed with Obama’s plan.

“I don’t know what expectations to have, honestly. I hope it will be constructive,” said Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a summit attendee. Conrad emphasized that cost-containment has to be “an important part of whatever advances.”

More than anything, House and Senate Democratic leaders are pinning their hopes on Obama to do what he does best: deliver a powerful presentation that inspires them to get on board with what many are viewing as their last shot at passing health care reform. After a year of trying to get a bill to Obama’s desk, Democrats have struggled to unify around a proposal and along the way failed to attract GOP support. Obama finally intervened earlier this week when he came out with a proposal of his own: a $950 billion plan that reflects the Senate’s health care plan that was passed late last year.

House Democratic leaders — although they’ve privately been marketing it — have publicly said they are giving Obama a chance to sell his plan before they try to rally their Caucus behind it. But most believe Obama’s blueprint, or something close to it, will be the package that finally breaks through and becomes law.

“I’m not doing any whipping now on proposals. I’m waiting on legislation to start my whipping process,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Wednesday on MSNBC.

Some Democrats are already showing that they need more convincing to get behind Obama’s plan.

“I hope it’s not just a bunch of partisan rhetoric,” Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), a fiscally conservative Blue Dog leader who voted against the House-passed health care bill last November, said of the summit.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who also opposed the $1.2 trillion House bill, said Obama’s plan “starts with a wholly unacceptable Senate health care bill and, with a few exceptions, continues to make it worse. It’s a much better bill for insurance company investors than it is for the American people.” Obama’s blueprint was built off the Senate’s $871 billion bill; it doesn’t contain a public insurance option and includes a controversial tax on high-cost health insurance plans.

Republicans, meanwhile, are heading into the summit ready to dismiss Obama’s proposal as a government takeover of health care and with skepticism about the president’s talk of crafting a final bill together. Republicans have been asking Obama to start anew and have questioned Obama’s motives for holding the summit in the first place.

“I’m hoping to find [bipartisanship], but with the president coming out with his whole plan on Monday, just three days before he said he wanted Republican input, it makes me wonder,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a physician, who will also be at the summit.

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