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 effort 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.
Even prior to the invitation, Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., a physician and head of the Republican Study Committee, dismissed the summit in an op-ed as "simply an attempt by the president to use the White House as a political tool to intimidate his way into a government takeover of health care. The American people and Republicans in Congress will not be taken by this Chicago-style politics."
At the summit, Obama will offer opening remarks, followed by comments from a Republican leader and a Democratic leader, according to the format detailed in Friday's letter. Obama will then moderate a discussion on four topics: insurance reforms, cost containment, expanding coverage and the impact of health legislation on the deficit.
Officials from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation also have been invited.
The letter stands as a challenge not just to Republicans but also to Democrats, who have yet to finalize a deal on sweeping overhaul legislation. They were on the verge of doing so last month before the special election victory of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts deprived Democrats of the filibuster-proof supermajority they need to move forward in the Senate.
That threw the whole undertaking into disarray, and congressional leaders have been struggling to pick up the pieces. Some hope the summit will break the logjam one way or the other.
In the letter, Obama pressed Democrats to resolve their difference in the disparate House and Senate bills and come up with final legislation before the session. He also asked the Republicans to produce a comprehensive bill.
Democratic leaders are working toward a package that could pass the Senate under controversial and complex rules that require only a simple majority vote, not the 60-vote supermajority they no longer control — a strong-arm partisan approach infuriates Republicans and makes moderate Democrats uneasy.
Democrats and Republicans are far apart in their approaches. Democrats' legislation would cover more than 30 million uninsured, while a House Republican plan would cover only 3 million. Members of both parties say they see a few areas for common ground, including reforming the medical malpractice system, and finding ways to allow consumers to shop for insurance plans across state lines.