Congressional Democratic leaders reacted coolly Sunday to President Barack Obama's call for a bipartisan White House meeting on health care later this month, even as they pledged to attend.
Obama told CBS News' Katie Couric in a pre-Super Bowl interview that he planned to convene a "large meeting" after the President's Day recess "to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward."
"If we can go step by step through a series of these issues and arrive at some agreements, then procedurally, there's no reason why we can't do it a lot faster than the process took," Obama added.
Health care talks stalled last month after Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass) special election victory robbed Senate Democrats of the filibuster-proof majority that had pushed their health care bill to passage.
Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) noted in their statements that they have already tried to convince Republicans to compromise on health care without tangible results.
"Senate Democrats join with the President in reaffirming our commitment to seeking a bipartisan solution to health reform. We have promoted the pursuit of a bipartisan approach to health reform from day one." Reid said in a statement. "As we continue our work to fix our broken health care system, Senate Democrats will not relent on our commitment to protecting consumers from insurance company abuses, reducing health care costs, saving Medicare and cutting the deficit."
Reid allowed Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to spend more than three months negotiating with a group of three Republicans, only to see those talks break down last fall. Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) supported the Finance package in committee, but no Republicans supported Reid's package on the Senate floor.
Similarly, Pelosi argued that she incorporated GOP proposals in the House-passed bill and that she has a history of bipartisanship.
"I welcome the President's call for a bipartisan, bicameral discussion in front of the American people on fundamental health insurance reform that will make quality care affordable for all Americans and American businesses," Pelosi said in a statement. "The House-passed health insurance reform legislation included a number of Republican amendments — added as the bill worked its way through three committees. In the last Congress, we worked with President Bush in a bipartisan way to pass initial economic recovery legislation, a bill to deal with the financial crisis and historic energy legislation that increased our nation's fuel efficiency standards for the first time in more than 30 years. We remain hopeful that the Republican leadership will work in a bipartisan fashion on the great challenges the American people face."
Republicans also said they would participate but reacted warily.
"We always appreciate the opportunity to share ideas with the president, particularly on an issue where Americans have spoken so clearly," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) "If we are to reach a bipartisan consensus, the White House can start by shelving the current health spending bill, and with it their goal of slashing a half trillion dollars from Medicare and raising a half trillion in new taxes. Setting these goals aside would be a sign that the administration and Democrats in Congress are listening to the country and are truly interested in a bipartisan approach."
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) also urged Democrats to start over on health care.
But one White House official told the Washington Post that the president's call for a bipartisan meeting should not be interpreted as a signal that he is willing to scrap the House and Senate bills.
"This is not starting over," the White House official told the Post. "Don't make any mistake about that. We are coming with our plan. They can bring their plan."
House and Senate leaders are still toying with a way to pass their health care reform bill. They have considered having the House send the Senate's bill to the president and then have both chambers pass a package of fixes using filibuster-proof budget reconciliation rules. However, internal party politics in both chambers have prevented leaders from settling on that course.