Healthcare summit: Chance for compromise or 'trap' for the GOP?

Obama is urging lawmakers to take a constructive approach to the bipartisan healthcare summit on Thursday. But many members of the GOP are wary of the meeting.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters/File
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spoke to the media about the election of Republican Scott Brown to the US Senate from Massachusetts on Capitol Hill in Washington January 20.

The coming week could provide important signals about whether bipartisanship has a chance these days in Washington – or whether partisan gridlock will become only more entrenched as the 2010 midterms approach.

On Thursday, President Obama will host a televised bipartisan summit in hopes of reviving healthcare legislation in Congress. He announced the meeting after Massachusetts elected Republican Scott Brown to the US Senate, which ended the Democrats’ filibuster-proof supermajority in that chamber.

Ahead of the summit, the White House is expected to release an updated healthcare-reform proposal, which will probably combine elements of the Democratic bills passed by the Senate and House. Mr. Obama has also challenged Republicans to come up with their own proposal.

In his weekly address Saturday, the president outlined the approach he hopes lawmakers take at the summit.

“I don’t want to see this meeting turn into political theater, with each side simply reciting talking points and trying to score political points,” he said. “Instead, I ask members of both parties to seek common ground in an effort to solve a problem that’s been with us for generations.”

At the same time, however, the Obama administration intends to use a strategy where Republicans will be put on the spot – forcing them to choose between compromising and looking like obstructionists, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Also, reports have surfaced that the reconciliation process will be used to push the healthcare bill through, which would require only 51 votes for approval in the Senate. Before Mr. Brown was elected, Senate Democrats had 60 votes for the healthcare bill.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many Republicans are wary of the meeting. “It’s a trap!” is a common refrain.

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republican leader in the Senate, has been vocal in objecting to how Democrats have approached healthcare, as well as a cap-and-trade energy bill. “On some of the big issues, they’ve tried to go in the wrong direction,” he said Sunday on “Fox News Sunday.”

Still, he said of the summit, “I intend to be there and my members will be there and ready to participate.”

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich called for “principled bipartisanship.”

The healthcare process, Mr. Gingrich said, should start from scratch – a point that members of the GOP are in agreement on. And Republicans should get as much time as Democrats to set forth their ideas at the summit, he said: “Let’s test the president’s willingness to be bipartisan.”

The healthcare summit isn’t the only bipartisan entity to get attention in recent days. This past Thursday, Obama created a bipartisan commission to come up with solutions to the federal budget deficit and national debt.

To chair this commission, he named Erskine Bowles, who served in the Clinton administration as White House chief of staff, and Alan Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming. In all, the panel would have eight Republicans and 10 Democrats. Fourteen members, Obama said, should agree on the panel’s recommendations.

No one expects the commission to come up with anything easily. In fact, just establishing a panel proved to be difficult: A few weeks ago, a bipartisan measure in the Senate to establish a fiscal commission fell apart when some Republicans withdrew their support.

The partisan gridlock in Congress was a key factor in the recent decision by Sen. Evan Bayh (D) of Indiana to not seek reelection.

“For some time, I have had a growing conviction that Congress is not operating as it should,” Senator Bayh said in announcing his decision. “There is too much partisanship and not enough progress – too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving.”

In a segment this past Friday on the “PBS NewsHour,” New York Times columnist David Brooks detailed some of Bayh’s frustrations. In the 11 years that Bayh has served, “exactly twice in that period of time all the senators have gotten together to talk about policy,” Mr. Brooks said, citing discussions with Bayh.

One of the senators’ assemblies was after 9/11. The other was around the time of the Clinton impeachment.

“He thought those sessions were actually fantastic sessions,” Brooks said. “They actually talked about things. And they had exchanges.”

Bayh has proposed that all senators get together as a body and have lunch, Brooks says.

But it could take a lot before lawmakers agree on such a step. Writes Ezra Klein, a blogger for The Washington Post: “Republicans and Democrats don't agree on much, but they do agree that Washington is increasingly paralyzed ... by their inability to agree on much.”


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