Washington — In a make or break move, President Barack Obama on Friday challenged three dozen Republicans and Democrats to participate in a one-of-a-kind televised summit this month to thrash out a deal on health care.
House Republicans immediately greeted the invite to the Feb. 25 event with derision, casting doubt on whether it would yield any bipartisan agreement to extend coverage to millions of Americans and rein in medical costs. “We need answers before we know if the White House is more interested in partisan theater than in facilitating a productive dialogue about solutions,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.
But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was more receptive, saying he would work with the White House “to maximize the effectiveness of the meeting.”
The summit is considered a last, best attempt to revive Obama’s yearlong quest, now stalled after Democrats lost their filibuster-proof Senate majority. Yet since Obama proposed the summit last weekend, Republicans and Democrats have voiced skepticism, with some in the GOP wondering if it would be nothing but a spectacle that could benefit the president at their expense.
By presiding over a meeting with three dozen lawmakers trying to get a word in edgewise, Obama may be able to dominate the conversation and the visual images. That’s what many Democrats say he did at a Jan. 29 session when he faced a roomful of GOP House members in Baltimore, controlling the microphone for much of the event.
The Baltimore event proved riveting for many Americans because it ranged over many topics and included numerous moments of partisan sparring. A half-day televised session on the complexities of health care may prove much less inviting to the average viewer.
In its invitation, the White House argued that remaking health care was imperative, and Obama challenged Democrats and Republicans to come up with comprehensive bills before the Blair House event — legislation that would be posted online.
Citing bills passed in the House and Senate, the White House said “this is the closest our nation has been to resolving this issue in the nearly 100 years that it has been debated. The Blair House meeting is the next step.”
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius cited the recent 39 percent rate hikes by Anthem Blue Cross in California as urgent proof the overhaul must be completed.
“As the president noted this week, if we don’t act on comprehensive health insurance reform, this enormous rate hike will be ‘just a preview of coming attractions,”’ they wrote.
The letter was sent to McConnell, Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
The White House named 21 lawmakers the president wants to attend the summit: the top leaders in the House and Senate and of the committees with jurisdiction over the health legislation. Obama also invited the top four leaders to invite four more lawmakers each, bringing the total to 37 — 20 Democrats and 17 Republicans.