Having received invitations to President Barack Obama's Feb. 25 health care summit and reviewed its proposed format, Congressional Republican leaders are dismissing the event as a political farce — albeit one they're likely to attend.
In a letter to Congressional leaders dated Friday, White House officials outlined a summit designed to compare comprehensive health care reform legislation passed by the Democrats late last year to a comprehensive GOP alternative — which does not exist. The administration has additionally predetermined the four health care policy subjects to be debated.
Republicans, demanding to have a say in the summit's format and warning for days they have no interest in attending a "public relations" exercise disguised as a substantive negotiation, say that is exactly what the nationally televised event is setting up to be. But Republican leaders will probably attend anyway perhaps for their own public relations reasons — though they are already labeling the summit a failure.
"So now the president wants to have a little PR event to try to resell a tremendously unpopular plan to Republicans and the American people. The administration still isn't listening," a House Republican leadership aide said Monday.
The structure of the summit, as revealed to Congressional leaders in a letter from White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, calls for the event to start at 10 a.m. at the Blair House next Thursday. The administration has pledged to put its health care bill online in advance of the meeting, and the letter asks the GOP to put its "comprehensive" alternative online as well.
The administration's Office of Management and Budget will be represented at the meeting, and officials from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation also will be invited. Sebelius, Vice President Joseph Biden and chief White House health care advisor Nancy-Ann DeParle will attend on behalf of the administration; Obama will play the role of moderator.
The letter lays out four subjects to be brought up for discussion: "insurance reforms, cost containment, expanding coverage, and the impact health reform legislation will have on deficit reduction."
"We have seen again in recent days that when it comes to health care, the status quo is unsustainable and unacceptable. The proof is right in front of us: just last week, a major insurer, Anthem Blue Cross, announced plans to increase premiums for many of its policyholders in California by as much as 39 percent on March 1," Emanuel and Sebelius wrote.
Without major reforms, they wrote, "premiums will continue to rise for folks with insurance; millions more will lose their coverage altogether; our deficits will continue to grow larger."
In particular, Republicans say Obama's request that they come to the bipartisan summit armed with their own comprehensive health care reform bill is evidence that the White House is trying to predetermine the event's outcome for political advantage.
Republicans have declined to produce a massive health care overhaul of their own because they prefer an incremental approach, and insist any negotiation should start from scratch and not be based on the House and Senate health care bills passed late last year. Obama shot down that recommendation during a Feb. 5 news conference, saying he did not want to go through a Congressional committee process that could take another six to eight months.
"I can't imagine how they think Republicans will be anything but amused by their attempts to corner us into producing a comprehensive alternative," a senior Republican Senate aide said. "We've never supported a massive rewrite of the health care system."
This GOP aide, who said that most public opinion polls support the Republican position, goes on to contend that "most Americans have undoubtedly lost their patience with Barack Obama promotional videos that produce nothing. But apparently the White House thinks they've got room for one more."