Republicans sent mixed signals after President Barack Obama challenged them to participate in a one-of-a-kind televised summit with Democrats to come up with healthcare legislation.
House Republicans derided the Feb. 25 event, casting doubt on whether it would produce any bipartisan agreement to extend coverage to millions of people and rein in medical costs.
"Are they willing to start over with a blank sheet of paper?" said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio. "We need answers before we know if the White House is more interested in partisan theater than in facilitating a productive dialogue about solutions."
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 health overhaul 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. Some in the GOP wondered if it would be nothing but a spectacle that could benefit the president at their expense. Democrats viewed Republicans' insistence that Obama trash existing bills and start over as evidence they weren't sincere about bipartisanship.
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.
In its invitation, the White House argued that remaking healthcare was imperative, and Obama challenged Democrats and Republicans to come up with comprehensive bills before the event at Blair House, across the street from the White House.
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.
Obama will offer opening remarks, followed by comments from a Republican leader and a Democratic leader, according to the format detailed in a letter Friday by Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Obama will then moderate a discussion covering four topics: insurance reforms, cost containment, expanding coverage and the impact of health legislation on the deficit.
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 60 votes they need to move forward in the Senate.
That threw the 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.
Democratic leaders are working toward a package that could pass the Senate under rules that require only a simple majority vote, not 60 votes — a strong-arm partisan approach infuriates Republicans and makes moderate Democrats uneasy.
Democrats and Republicans are far apart in their aims. 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 revamping the medical malpractice system and finding ways to allow consumers to shop for insurance plans across state lines.
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