Obama's healthcare plan gets chilly GOP reception

GOP leaders on Capitol Hill criticize Obama's healthcare plan, lowering expectations for Thursday's bipartisan summit on the issue.

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    White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs during his daily press briefing at the White House, in Washington, Monday. GOP leaders on Capitol Hill criticize Obama's healthcare plan immediately after its release on Monday.
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Within moments of the release of President Obama’s healthcare plan Monday morning, top Republicans came out swinging.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, in a statement, claimed the bill “slashes Medicare for our seniors,” raises taxes, fines those who “don’t buy the right insurance,” and “further expands the role of government” in personal decisions.

House GOP leader John Boehner complained that “the president has crippled the credibility of this week’s summit by proposing the same massive government takeover of healthcare based on a partisan bill the American people have already rejected.”

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Mr. Boehner added that the Thursday summit between Mr. Obama and bipartisan congressional leaders, which is to be televised, “has all the makings of a Democratic infomercial.” He did not go so far as to announce a Republican boycott of the meeting, but that possibility remains.

Republicans had wanted Obama to start from scratch on healthcare reform, a suggestion the White House rejected, or at least to adopt the GOP's step-by-step approach to reducing healthcare costs.

GOP leaders say they will not release a new plan of their own in the run-up to Thursday's summit.

"Republicans have been releasing bills and proposals and step-by-step plans for a year," says Don Stewart, a senior aide to Republican Senate leaders. "Americans don't want another 2,700-page bill. They want a step-by-step plan."

With such a low level of bipartisan goodwill heading into the meeting, the real question may be whether the Democrats can agree among themselves how to proceed – and whether they can cobble together simple majorities in both houses of Congress to pass fixes to the Senate version via a procedure known as reconciliation.

The early, tentative signs show hope for the White House. In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the administration’s proposal “contains positive elements from the House and Senate-passed bills.” The two bills overlap significantly but not completely – creating a major logistical hurdle when the Senate Democrats lost their 60-vote filibuster-proof majority last month. If no Republicans are willing to go along with the Democrats in the Senate, the Democrats will have no choice but to go the reconciliation route or give up altogether.

For the past month, Speaker Pelosi has maintained that she did not have the votes to pass the Senate plan in the House, which would have been one way to finish healthcare reform without requiring another Senate vote. Now, the Obama administration says it is open to the use of budget reconciliation to finish the reform, a technique that requires only a simple majority in each house. Only aspects of the reform that affect the budget would be eligible for reconciliation.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York, one of the House’s more vocal liberals, on Monday called Obama’s proposal a “51-vote plan and not a 60-vote plan.” “That is great news,” he said in a statement. “Democrats wasted a year bowing to the altar of Olympia Snowe, Joe Lieberman, and Ben Nelson and it got us nowhere.”

All three are senators – Ms. Snowe is a moderate Republican, Mr. Lieberman an Independent Democrat, and Mr. Nelson a conservative Democrat – who garnered attention as they sought to shape healthcare reform to their liking.

Thursday’s summit may just be a way station on the road to budget reconciliation.

"Reconciliation is the only option they've got," says Henry Aaron, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "That's what Thursday is all about: They want to reframe the debate, point out Republican intransigence, and give Democrats in both houses cover to support reconciliation for such a bill."

Former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, a moderate Republican, sees the summit as “high political theater” but without much chance of winning Republican support.

“All of a sudden, you bring in TV cameras, you know this is theater,” said Mr. Davis, now president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership, at a Monitor breakfast Monday. “I don’t think [Republicans] are going to come in and sign a deal,” he added. “But it is going to be very interesting to watch.”

Staff writer David Cook contributed to this report.

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