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Obama to invite GOP to healthcare summit

The president hopes both parties work out differences in televised talks. Republicans say they will participate but want the health bills tossed.

February 08, 2010|By Peter Nicholas

Reporting from Washington — In a high-stakes bid to revive his healthcare overhaul, President Obama announced during a pre-Super Bowl television interview that he would convene a bipartisan summit in which Republicans and Democrats would try to forge a compromise while a national TV audience watched.

Republican leaders indicated they would attend the Feb. 25 gathering, but said they want to start over -- tossing out the measures that passed the Senate and House last year.

Speaking to Katie Couric of CBS, Obama said: "What I want to do is ask them to put their ideas on the table and then after the recess . . . to come back and have a large meeting -- Republicans and Democrats -- to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward."

The half-day summit would be held at Blair House, across the street from the White House, after Congress' recess next week.

Obama telegraphed his plans at a fundraiser Thursday night. "What I'd like to do is have a meeting whereby I'm sitting with the Republicans, sitting with the Democrats, sitting with healthcare experts, and let's just go through these bills . . . in a methodical way so that the American people can see and compare what makes the most sense," he said.

The summit invitation serves two political purposes.

For months, the president has endured criticism that he reneged on a promise to televise healthcare negotiations on C-SPAN. By opening up the summit to the cameras, Obama can argue he is making good on that commitment at a crucial point in the process.

Also, the summit gives the president a chance to paint Republicans as obstructionists who refuse offers of compromise. If that's how the event is perceived, it could pay off for Democrats in the November midterm elections.

But if viewers conclude that Republicans are being reasonable, and that Obama is pushing an unworkable proposal, his gesture could backfire. Polls tend to show that the public dislikes what it has heard about the healthcare overhaul.

The Senate and House have passed different versions of the bill, which is intended to extend coverage to millions of uninsured Americans, hold down healthcare costs and raise money to pay for the plan. But efforts to forge a consensus amenable to both chambers stalled after Democrats lost their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate. Republican Scott Brown won the seat formerly held by the late Edward M. Kennedy last month, becoming the GOP's 41st vote -- exactly the number needed to sustain a filibuster. Brown campaigned on stopping the healthcare bill.

Republicans said Sunday that they are prepared to participate in the summit, but would like a White House commitment to start from scratch.

"Obviously, I am pleased that the White House finally seems interested in a real, bipartisan conversation on healthcare," said House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio.

"The problem with the Democrats' healthcare bills is not that the American people don't understand them; the American people do understand them, and they don't like them," he said.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said: "We always appreciate the opportunity to share ideas with the president, particularly on an issue where Americans have spoken so clearly. If we are to reach a bipartisan consensus, the White House can start by shelving the current health spending bill."

But starting fresh is not part of the White House plan.

In an interview Sunday night, a White House official said, "The Republicans are going to interpret this as we're starting over. We're not starting over. We're coming in with our plan. They're welcome to come in with whatever plan they'd like. But we're moving forward."

One Republican aide said Sunday that the summit looked to be "a stunt." The White House could have called such a meeting "six months ago -- as Republicans asked them to," the aide said.

Democratic congressional leaders have been talking almost daily about how to revive health legislation, meeting most recently on Thursday at the White House with Obama.

On Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said they looked forward to the summit.

In a statement, Pelosi said, "I welcome the president's call for a bipartisan, bicameral discussion in front of the American people on fundamental health insurance reform that will make quality care affordable for all Americans and American businesses."

She added that the House and Senate would use the time until the summit to keep looking for a solution.

Reid, in a statement, said, "Senate Democrats join with the president in reaffirming our commitment to seeking a bipartisan solution to health reform."

peter.nicholas@ latimes.com

Noam Levey of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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