Here's one point on which Democrats and Republicans agree on healthcare: President Barack Obama's much-touted televised summit has virtually no chance of breaking the political logjam. That means Democrats will be forced to find a way to pass an overhaul on their own or face a huge political defeat.
Lawmakers from both parties suggested the Obama-hosted meeting Thursday will amount to little more than political theater. No cracks appeared in the GOP's overwhelming opposition to Democrats' efforts. And both parties saw the president's revised, far-reaching proposal, released Monday, as a call for Democrats to try to pass the legislation on their own under Senate rules that would bar Republican delaying tactics.
"We're happy to be there, but I'm not quite sure what the purpose is," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Tuesday of the daylong summit. "It seems to me the president's already made up his mind."
Underscoring his points, McConnell invited some of Obama's sharpest critics, including the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, to join him. None of the GOP moderates who have raised the prospect of bipartisanship on healthcare, such as New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg or Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, were included.
Democrats were equally dismissive of GOP demands that they start from scratch.
"This idea that we have to start with a blank sheet of paper is ridiculous," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
That's not to say Thursday's six-hour meeting will play no role in the long-running healthcare debate. As president, Obama is likely to dominate, but Republicans hope to use the session to criticize the Democratic plan's scope and cost, and to highlight their more modest alternatives.
Democrats are almost certain to portray the GOP alternatives as flimsy and unworkable. They hope the session will embolden rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers who face re-election this fall amid worries that public opposition to a full-scale overhaul of healthcare could doom them. Failing to pass a bill would be even worse, party leaders say.
Barring an unlikely bipartisan breakthrough, all but a handful of Democrats' votes will be needed to pass the legislation under Senate budget reconciliation rules, which would disallow GOP filibusters. Democrats control 59 of the Senate's 100 seats. But they lost their ability to overcome Republican-led filibusters when GOP Sen. Scott Brown won a seat in Massachusetts last month.
The reconciliation strategy would require House Democrats to swallow several objections and approve a bill the Senate passed in December. Then Senate Democrats, under budget reconciliation rules, would have to make several changes demanded by the House and White House.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a self-described "independent Democrat" from Connecticut, emerged from a Democratic strategy session Tuesday and said the healthcare legislation's prognosis is "unclear but clearly heading toward reconciliation."
McConnell said the Obama administration appears determined "to try to jam it through under a seldom-used process," or budget reconciliation.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said reconciliation rules have been used 21 times since 1981, usually by Republicans.
"They should stop crying about reconciliation," Reid told reporters at the Capitol. "It's done almost every Congress, and they're the ones that used it more than anyone else."
But it's unclear whether the House or Senate can muster the votes required by the strategy. As many as 10 Democrats who backed the House version in November — when it passed 220 to 215 — have said they may abandon the revised legislation because it contains somewhat more permissive language on access to abortion in government-sanctioned insurance exchanges.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., sponsor of stricter limits on federal funds for abortion in the House bill, raised concerns about the Obama plan without issuing an ultimatum.
"While the president has laid out a healthcare proposal that brings us closer to resolving our differences, there is still work to be done before Congress can pass comprehensive healthcare reform," Stupak said in a statement.
At the same time, Obama's allies hope to woo some of the 39 House Democrats who voted against the bill in November because the revised plan contains no public insurance option to compete with private companies.
Many House Democrats attended a closed meeting Tuesday at which pollster Celinda Lake said many elderly Americans fear the Obama plans could harm Medicare.
The White House said three dozen lawmakers, plus several administration officials, will sit at a hollow square table with name placards on Thursday. Leaders of both parties will speak. Obama will lead discussions on controlling healthcare costs and expanding coverage. Vice President Joe Biden will head a discussion on deficit reduction. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will lead talks on insurance reform.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi invited four colleagues Tuesday, in addition to previously announced committee chairmen, to attend: Reps. Rob Andrews of New Jersey, Xavier Becerra of California, Jim Cooper of Tennessee and Louise Slaughter of New York.
McConnell tapped GOP senators McCain, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, John Barrasso of Wyoming and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, in addition to key committee leaders.
For Obama, the toughest chore will come in the following days and weeks. He will have to persuade wavering Democratic lawmakers if the healthcare package is to become law, several members of Congress said Tuesday.
"The president has to get involved big time," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. Especially for House Democrats, she said, "it's a heavy lift."
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