Healthcare summit: More like a duel at dawn than a garden party

The White House has invited congressional Republicans to join Democrats for a healthcare summit to be moderated by President Obama and broadcast live. But Obama says legislative proposals should be on the table, and the GOP wants to start from scratch.

By , Staff writer

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    A crowd of demonstrators with people supporting healthcare reform and those opposed to it outside the Westin Hotel in Seattle where Vice President Joe Biden attended a fundraiser breakfast Friday, Feb. 12, for Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who is up for reelection in November.
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The tone is like a hand-engraved invitation to a formal garden party. But the event is more likely to resemble a duel with pistols at dawn – designated seconds to carry the weaponry, insults to honor stated ahead of time, perhaps a physician in attendance.

That’s the invitation the White House has sent to senior Republican lawmakers requesting their presence at a Blair House summit meeting Feb. 25 to discuss healthcare reform.

Signed by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius – good cop, bad cop? – the invitation is addressed to House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid and their GOP counterparts Rep. John Boehner and Sen. Mitch McConnell.

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Formalities laid out

Like a duel, there are formalities laid out.

Who should attend: Senior House/Senate leadership, chairmen and ranking members of relevant congressional committees, four additional members, plus one staff member specializing in healthcare policy. Metal detectors at the door of Blair House. (Just kidding about that.)

Order of business: Opening remarks by the President, then remarks by Democratic and Republican leader designated by their respective political parties. Then a discussion to be moderated by the President on “four critical topics” – insurance reforms, cost containment, expanding coverage, and the impact health reform legislation will have on deficit reduction.

For you C-SPAN junkies, the whole thing is to be broadcast live.

Ah, but there’s a major potential show-stopper, amounting to a gauntlet thrown down at the GOP’s feet.

Each side is to present ahead of time (and online for all to see) a comprehensive bill that would “put a stop to insurance company abuses, extend coverage to millions of Americans, get control of skyrocketing premiums and out-of-pocket costs, and reduce the deficit.”

GOP wants to start from scratch

The Republican position has been that any new bipartisan effort must include starting from scratch – scrapping House and Senate bills written by Democrats and rejected by Republicans. So having a White House healthcare reform package already as a point of discussion could be problematic.

“This leaves a lot of unanswered questions,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for Rep. Boehner, said in a statement. “Are they excluding governors, state legislators, [the Congressional Budget Office], and rank-and-file congressional Democrats who have opposed Obamacare and are the reason the president hasn’t had a bill to sign?”

“Are Congressional Democrats still working behind closed doors with White House support on a ‘pre-negotiated package’ that can be rammed through Congress after the summit via legislative tricks?” Steel asks. “Or are they willing to start over with a blank sheet of paper? We need answers before we know if the White House is more interested in partisan theater than in facilitating a productive dialogue about solutions.”

Rammed through Congress? Legislative tricks? Partisan theater? Heaven forfend!

Who knows how it’ll turn out? For sure, the news that WellPoint – a major health insurance company in California – just hiked its rates 39 percent (while reporting a $4.75 billion profit in the last quarter of 2009) has added ammunition to the calls for healthcare reform.

In any case, let the drama in Washington continue, partisan theater or not.

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