Thursday's lively summit on healthcare reform won't make or break President Obama's ambitious agenda, experts say. But arm-twisting sessions in back rooms of Congress during the next 48 hours could.
Early reviews suggested neither side scored a "game-changer" Thursday that would alter the political equation.
"This was no Baltimore," commented political expert Larry J. Sabato, a reference to President Obama's strong performance at the House Republican meeting last month. "The Republicans learned from that earlier encounter. Obama was simply first among equals at today’s table."
The six-and-a-half hour meeting televised at Blair House was promoted as a way for Republicans and Democrats to find common ground. But disputes broke out over whether Obamacare would raise the cost of insurance premiums, decrease the availability of coverage for seniors, and do further damage to the federal deficit.
One of the more pointed exchanges occurred when the president tried to interrupt his 2008 rival, Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain as he roundly criticized Democrats' proposals.
McCain shot back testily, "Can I finish?"
Once McCain completed his remarks, Obama delivered a pointed gibe.
"Let me just make this point, John, because we're not campaigning anymore," Obama said. "The election is over. We can spend the remainder of the time with our respective talking points going back and forth. We were supposed to be talking about insurance."
McCain's droll riposte: "I'm reminded of that every day."
Asked during a break in the summit if he thought a bipartisan deal over healthcare was possible, House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., replied with a terse "No."
The impasse was clear, which means moderate House Democrats soon will face a critical decision: Push the unpopular bill through Congress via the controversial maneuver called reconciliation, or vote against Obamacare despite the anger that will trigger from the political left?
“Congressional Democrats are already looking beyond the White House healthcare summit, reckoning that Thursday's session will amount to little more than political theater and focusing instead on a final round of intraparty negotiations that are likely to determine the fate of President Obama's top domestic priority," The Washington Post reported Thursday.
In fact, sources on Capitol Hill said the summit really was intended to bolster the confidence of moderate House Democrats who are looking for a reason to go along with their leadership and cram ObamaCare through Congress.
“The point [of the summit] is to alter the political atmospherics, and it will take a day or two to sense if it succeeded,” a source told Politico.
Sabato tells Newsmax that Thursday's outcome means Democratic leaders will now try to push for a Democratic-only bill.
"Now the entire game will be within the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate. It’s obvious that an attempt at reconciliation is the next step. It’s anybody’s guess whether the Democrats will get it passed, but it will be a close vote in both houses — maybe just a vote or two.
Sabato added: "This is the last-gasp effort. If healthcare doesn’t pass, that is the end of an Obama comprehensive bill no matter how long the Obama administration lasts."
Under the reconciliation process, House members would approve the precise bill the Senate approved. Senate Democrats would agree to later "reconcile" specific provisions of Obamacare, going item by item to account for what House Democrats consider defects in the Senate version.
Reconciliation requires a simple majority of 51 votes in the Senate. The maneuver is designed to apply to budgetary provisions, rather than the establishment of new entitlement programs.
Republicans are sure to mount a strong attack against using reconciliation to push through healthcare reform. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was one of the senators who in 1974 drafted the original legislation creating the reconciliation process.
Byrd has said using reconciliation to expedite health-care reform would be "an outrage that must be resisted.”
It remains unclear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., can muster the votes they need to pass the Senate's bill.
Tomorrow, they will begin canvassing moderate and blue dog Democrats, gauging their support.
Democrats will take to the airwaves to repeat their mantra that the president has been open and bipartisan, and will charge that Republicans have become "the party of no."
Some observers believe that argument may be less persuasive now that the public has heard Republican arguments on the matter.
Dani Doane, government relations director for the Heritage Foundation, tells Newsmax: "Since the Democrats will not get the expected talking points from the event (i.e., 'the Republicans are obstructionists without any ideas'), they are now required to come up with another message point for the public. This will give the moderate wing some pause."
Expect Democratic leaders to warn their colleagues that a failure to deliver on President Obama's No. 1 domestic agenda item would all but guarantee a Republican rout in November. Democrats still remember the drubbing they suffered at the polls in 1994 following the stalemate over the Clinton administration's universal healthcare proposal.
Republicans will counter that Democrats haven't offered significant compromises. They also will tout the continued unpopularity of the president's proposed healthcare overhaul.
A recent Zogby International-University of Texas Health Science Center poll showed that 57 percent of voters said Congress should scrap the current proposals, and start over.
Similarly, a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll released Thursday showed that 56 percent of voters disapprove of the job President Obama is doing on healthcare. That compares with just 37 percent who approve.
About halfway through Thursday's summit, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, Tom Price, R-Ga., told the media: "So far the summit has illuminated what Americans have feared: Democrats fundamentally believe that medical decisions should rest in Washington, rather than with patients and doctors... This fundamental difference in philosophy, more than anything, sums up the divide that has stalled the president’s legislation. While we seek to empower patients, the president’s and Democrat plans hand greater control over to Washington.”
To overcome such arguments, Pelosi and Hoyer will have to persuade House Democrats that the risk of doing nothing is greater than the danger of supporting a bill that has grown increasingly unpopular following a summer of raucous town-hall meetings, and serious electoral setbacks in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts.
Democrats now appear committed to going all in. White House aides reportedly were furious Thursday with a Wall Street Journal report indicating President Obama might be willing to settle for pared-down legislation offering modest, incremental reforms.
White House sources sent word via left-leaning journalists such as Sam Stein of the Huffington Post and Ezra Klein of the Washington Post that the president is not banking on a watered-down "Plan B" to salvage his political agenda.
If that's the case, look for talk of passing the bill via reconciliation to really heat up later this week. That would involve political arm-twisting among Democrats in both the House and the Senate.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid may canvass his members to see whether they would back down on the more lenient abortion-funding language in the Senate bill, which House Democrats find objectionable. Making the Senate's abortion-funding language match the House version would make it much more palatable to moderate House Democrats.
Former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, senior fellow at the Family Research Council, says that's the only way ObamaCare will have a "fighting chance" of winning approval in the House.
"The president would have to actually flex muscle and figuratively break some bones, in order to make that happen," Blackwell tells Newsmax.
"That's why I think this was a group of folks dancing around the campfire. I'm not sure that they moved one inch either way on the big issue. . . I think the political price tag might be too high for that scenario to come to fruition. But that's about the only way I see there being any chance for this to happen."
On Wednesday, several House Democrats said getting the Senate bill through the House as is will be a very difficult proposition. The original bill passed by the House in November following months of tortuous negotiations passed by just 220-215. A defection of just three more Democratic votes would have doomed the bill. And that was before Sen. Scott Brown's stunning upset in Massachusetts.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., continues to speak out for House members who feel the Senate bill doesn't go far enough to ensure public funds would not be spent to pay for abortions. But he said Wednesday there are other shortcomings in the bill as well.
"Despite the abortion language," Stupak said yesterday, "no, there are other problems with this bill. . . [I have spoken to] probably about 15 or 20 of them in the last 24 hours; they've said there are other problems with this bill."
Despite the Democrats' 77-seat majority in the House, losing those 15 votes would all but doom Obamacare according to most analysts.
Pelosi also will try to assure her members that the backlash from using reconciliation to pass healthcare reform won't cost Democrats control of one or possibly both house of Congress.
Fox News commentator and best-selling author Dick Morris recently told Newsmax: "While I fully expect the liberals in the House will table their objections and vote for the Senate bill, and hope that they get some stuff back in reconciliation, I do not believe that the conservative Democrats in the House are going to vote for that bill any longer.
"I think these folks are terrified. Unless they all resign and aren't running for re-election — that they're prepared to go to their graves gloriously, as opposed to ingloriously — I think that they probably will not pass the Senate bill. [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi] may not be able to pass it in the House."
The Heritage Foundation's Doane gave Obama a "D-" for his performance at the summit Thursday. She says he didn't score the game-changer needed to persuade House Democrats to put their political futures at risk for the sake of healthcare reform.
"He wanted to talk substance and ideas, but instead fell on the usual rhetoric," she tells Newsmax. "When faced with specific concerns within the bills (the health care cost curve, revenue projections, etc.), he chose to change the topic. I also felt his dismissal of the American people — as in they don’t care about the reconciliation process — was insulting."
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