The invitations have gone out to leadership in both parties to attend Barack Obama’s ostensibly bipartisan summit on health care. Is this the event of the social season, a political debate, or Kabuki theater? Depending on who answers, it seems that no one is quite sure what to expect from any of the participants, assuming the debate takes place at all:
The White House formally invited Republicans on Friday to attend a health-care summit Feb. 25, calling it “the next step” in the process of reforming the country’s broken health insurance system and pledging to post the text of a reform proposal online before the gathering.
In a letter to lawmakers, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the half-day meeting at Blair House would include the top Democratic and Republican congressional leaders and the ranking members in committees that deal with health care.
Outlining the format for a session some Republicans have derided as little more than political theater, the Obama advisers said both parties would be allowed to invite four other members each to the discussion, to begin at 10 a.m. and be televised live.
This comes after leaks on Capitol Hill assert that Democrats have already agreed on the “trick” to push the current Senate bill through the House and use reconciliation for a series of tax and spending fixes demanded by Nancy Pelosi’s progressive caucus. That would make the summit entirely moot, as any agreement reached for a new, bipartisan approach at the summit would require the reintroduction of amended bills to both chambers — essentially starting the process from Step 1 over again. Republicans have already called foul on this development, and demanded that Democrats tear up the existing bills as a prerequisite for the debate:
A statement from Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner.
“This leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Are they excluding governors, state legislators, CBO, and rank-and-file congressional Democrats who have opposed Obamacare and are the reason the president hasn’t had a bill to sign? Are Congressional Democrats still working behind closed doors with White House support on a ‘pre-negotiated package’ that can be rammed through Congress after the summit via legislative tricks? Or are they willing to start over with a blank sheet of paper? We need answers before we know if the White House is more interested in partisan theater than in facilitating a productive dialogue about solutions.”
The structure of the debate also should raise some eyebrows. Obama’s invitation makes him the moderator of the event, which is a risible notion. Obama has hardly maintained an independent position over the past several months, openly cheerleading Democratic ideas while ignoring (until forced to recognize) competing Republican proposals:
The format of the Feb. 25 summit has the feel of a quasi-debate, at least at the beginning. The president will give opening remarks, followed by remarks from a Republican leader and a Democratic leader, according to the letter.
The president will then moderate discussion on four topics: insurance reforms, cost containment, expanding coverage, and the impact health reform legislation will have on deficit reduction, the letter stated.
In any political debate, having a moderator with an explicit interest in the outcome is completely unacceptable. How hard would it have been to find a retired elder statesperson to act as moderator? Howard Baker, Lee Hamilton, Bob Dole, and even Bill Frist comes to mind here, although Frist may have been too recent for the comfort of Democrats. Someone could have gotten on the phone with former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to ask if she was available.
Obama’s political standing as President hangs in the balance on the outcome of his all-in on health care. Let him argue along with the Democrats on the panel, but if Obama’s moderating, it will be less of a bipartisan debate than a “Welcome to the parlor, said the spider to the fly” arrangement.
I’ve got a better idea. If Obama wants to truly find a bipartisan arrangement, then let him meet with the leaders of both parties at the White House and run the meeting in a manner that will find one, rather than concoct a ridiculous structure that will produce nothing but another photo op for himself. If he wants an open debate, let’s put off the ObamaCare debate until after the midterm elections and let the candidates debate it on the stump in every Congressional district and state. We’ll see by the election results who wins that debate.