The Head Table at the Health Care Summit Today, Which Ended With Little Hope of a Bipartisan Deal on Centrist Health Care Reform
Over six hours of debate and discussion between Republicans and Democrats, with Democratic President Barack Obama moderating and commenting frequently, ended just now with little indication that a deal between the GOP and Obama over health care reform is forthcoming. Obama himself stated that he is unsure that “gaps can be bridged.” The parties essentially talked past each other for hours, reciting their respective scripted commentary and talking points regarding health care reform, with the GOP generally favoring a smaller, incremental health care plan while the Democrats favored a large, comprehensive health care plan.
Media reaction has been generally favorable for all involved, with an interesting surge in praise for the Republican performance from mainstream news sources such as CNN and MSNBC. For instance, CNN’s centrist commenter David Gergen, who has advised four Presidents from both parties, stated as follows this afternoon:
CNN’s DAVID GERGEN: “The folks in the White House just must be kicking themselves right now. They thought that coming out of Baltimore when the President went in and was mesmerizing and commanding in front of the House Republicans that he could do that again here today. That would revive health care and would change the public opinion about their health care bill and they can go on to victory. Just the opposite has happened.” (CNN’s “Live,” 2/25/10)
CNN’s left-leaning commentator Gloria Borgen also praised the GOP’s performance, stating that “the Republicans have been very effective today. They really did come to play. They were very smart.” (CNN’s “Live,” 2/25/10). Considering the scolding the GOP took after the last live-TV encounter with Obama at the House Republican retreat from the media, such positive reactions are surprising but indicative of a much more polished and substantive performance by the GOP today. Another commentator, centrist reporter A.B. Stoddard from The Hill, also had kind words for the GOP:
THE HILL’S A.B. STODDARD: “I think we need to start out by acknowledging Republicans brought their ‘A Team.’ They had doctors knowledgeable about the system, they brought substance to the table, and they, I thought, expressed interest in the reform. I thought in the lecture from Senator John McCain and on the issue of transparency, I thought today the Democrats were pretty much on their knees.” (Fox News’ “Live,” 2/25/10)
Ace rounds up analysis from conservative journalists who argue that the GOP “suckered” Obama into believing they were lifeless dupes at the House Republican Retreat encounter, and that Obama’s skills did not mesh well with the negotiated format today. Obama also appeared to be the lone effective Democratic participant, with other Democrats focusing more on anecdotal stories about individual health care stories instead of doing the hard work of defending and selling the legislative language.
In what may become the most memorable exchange of today’s affair, GOP House Leader John Boehner sparred with President Obama over why the Administration would not accept a bipartisan deal over incremental health care reform legislation on issues such as medical malpractice reform, insurance reforms and the allowance of interstate competition between insurance companies. Obama responded in non-committal fashion as follows:
“John, you know, the challenge I have here, and this has happened periodically, is every so often we have a pretty good conversation trying to get on some specifics and then we go back to the standard talking points that Democrats and Republicans have had for the last year and that doesn’t drive us to an agreement on issues.”
All day long, the Democrats attempted to downplay the issue of the use of reconciliation, as epitomized by Harry Reid’s obviously untruthful statement that “nobody is talking about reconciliation” in his opening comments. Obama also danced around the issue, asserting that the American people are not that interested in the “procedures inside the Senate”:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: “You know, this issue of reconciliation has been brought up. Again I think the American people aren’t always all that interested in procedures inside the Senate. I do think they want a vote on how we’re going to move this forward.” (President Obama, Health Care Summit, 2/25/10)
Obama’s comments run counter to several polls released in the last few days, including Fox’s finding that 59% reject moving forward with Obama’s Health Plan unless a deal is reached with the GOP and Gallup’s finding that 52% of the American public reject the use of reconciliation by the Senate to pass Obamacare, while only 39% are in favor.
Nancy Pelosi’s final speaking period was marked by a sour note of attacks on John Boehner (about abortion funding in the Senate bill) and Dave Camp (about the over $400 Billion in Medicare cuts), repeating herself several times while claiming both GOP congressmen were essentially liars.
Obama’s closing argument focused initially on advocacy of strong new federal regulation of insurance companies with a sprinkling in of references to anecdotal stories of individual health outcomes. Obama also defended the national exchange idea as “not a government takeover” but failed to mention that all policies offered on the exchange would have to meet stringent federal benefits requirements and report to a new federal bureaucracy.
Another theme Obama returned to several times was his claim that his plan would provide coverage to all Americans along similar lines as Congress receives, which is a dubious claim at best considering the gold-plated nature of Congressional members’ health care coverage On selling insurance across state lines, Obama agreed in principle with GOP ideas there but his “philosophical concern” with that proposal is a “race to the bottom” that Obama claimed would result if interstate insurance sales were allowed. Obama again stressed his “pilot programs” for medical malpractice, however, as former Kansas Trial Lawyer Association Chief and now HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in charge of the effort, it is unlikely to make a serious dent in trial lawyer profits.
Obama continued in his concluding remarks by claiming that he put forward “substantial” policies that were previously put forward by Republicans, used the term “Obamacare” to refer to the comprehensive health care plan and discussed the “fair share” that employers must pay via the new employer taxes in Obamacare, while repeating that his plan is “consistent with a market based approach.” Obama then claimed that his Medicare cuts are a “Republican idea” and stated that “he will end by stating” that “I suspect that if the Democrats and the Administration were willing to start over and then adopt John Boehner’s bill, we’d get a whole bunch of Republican votes. I don’t know how many Democrat votes we’d get….the concern…on the Democratic side…after five decades of dealing with this issue, starting over, they suspect, means not doing much.” Obama then tweaked Republicans to “do a little soul searching” to find the inner strength to support his plans, and then quickly stated that “I dont know frankly if we can close that gap.”
Obama then moved towards the end of his final remarks with more anecdotes about how folks he talks to don’t want him to wait and that they can’t “afford to wait another five decades.” Obama partially recognized the unpopularity of his health plans by stating “I dont need a poll to know that most of Republican voters are opposed to this bill” and regarding the GOP’s demand to start over, “if we saw significant [GOP] movement, then you wouldn’t need to start over because essentially everyone here knows what the issues are.” The President than set a “a month or six weeks” deadline for additional talks with the GOP and implied that without progress by then, the President would proceed to attempt to push the present version of the Obama Health Plan through Congress and after that have the People decide via elections. On the way out the door, Obama told reporters it was a “terrific conversation” today. Politico sums up the summit as follows:
Thursday’s health care summit wound down with President Barack Obama making clear he couldn’t sign on to the Republican plan for reform, wouldn’t abandon reconciliation and had no intention of scrapping his own plan – capping the six-plus-hour session with a dig at Republicans for pitching a bill that covers just a fraction of the uninsured.
“Those steps don’t get you to the place people need to go,” Obama said of the Republican plan.
Republicans said the same thing in their closing comments that they said at 10 a.m. – start over. Obama won’t.
So the parties walked out of Blair House almost exactly the way they walked in – completely at odds over the best way to fix the health insurance system. That means Democrats are almost certain to go ahead with plans to short-circuit Senate rules to try to pass the bill with a 51-vote majority, as early as next week.
In the post-summit environment, it appears that Obama did not score a huge victory that many claimed he needed to keep the Administration’s plan to pass the Senate bill through the House and then pass another Senate bill via reconciliation to “fix” the problems with the prior Senate bill. Politico and others are reporting that Obama intends to discard any pretense of bipartisanship early next week and work on pushing Obamacare through both houses of Congress. The WSJ and others are reporting that Obama intends to scale back his present $950 Billion Dollar plan to a $250 Billion Dollar plan in the wake of the summit in order to get a win of some kind on health care. Furthermore, Obama appeared to set a new deadline by the end of March for passing a deal with the GOP before passing Obamacare via reconciliation.. The next few days are sure to be exciting as the fate of the Democratic attempt to pass the largest health care bill in American history hang in the balance.