Obama plans televised healthcare debate
US President Barack Obama has invited Democrats and Republicans to take part in a half-day summit on reviving the push for healthcare reform which he himself will host at the White House on 25 February and which, crucially, will be televised live.
Faced with a slow crumbling of his top domestic priority since the surprise win last month of Republican Scott Brown in the race for Teddy Kennedy's old US Senate seat, Mr Obama issued the invitation in an interview with CBS News's Katie Couric before Sunday night's Super Bowl game.
It is partly a response to criticism that in dealing with healthcare Mr Obama has so far fumbled one of his key election campaign promises – to make things more transparent in Washington. Last year's tortuous negotiations were characterised by closed-door deal-making and concession-swapping. The healthcare push also made a mockery of his pledge to bring a new spirit of bipartisanship to Washington.
But something else is at play. Mr Obama got high marks after a late-January televised meeting with Republican members of Congress when he took questions and vigorously challenged them to take a constructive part in the healthcare debate. Once again, he is trying to make it harder for the Republicans just to sustain their rejectionist stance of the last 12 months without offering something positive.
"I want to consult closely with our Republican colleagues," he told Couric. "What I want to do is to ask them to put their ideas on the table... I want 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 calling of the summit also sets a deadline for the Democrats to fathom a way of passing some kind of reform package even though the win by Mr Brown robbed them of the super-majority in the Senate that protected them from the threat of Republican filibusters. This could involve the House essentially passing roughly the same package of reforms that was approved by the Senate on Christmas Eve.
Republicans will now also be under pressure to come up with alternative proposals, although officials at the White House yesterday indicated that Mr Obama had no intention of starting from scratch again as some have suggested. "This is not starting over," one official said. "Don't make any mistake about that. We are coming with our plan. They can bring their plan."
While Mr Obama's goals remain the same – expanding insurance coverage to those without it and lowering premiums – the scope of reform is certain to narrow if compromise is to be reached. Recently, the President has taken to speaking not of "healthcare reform" but, rather, "health insurance reform".
The latest evidence of rising costs – a shocking 39 per cent rise in premiums by major California health insurer Anthem Blue Cross – was cited by Mr Obama. "That's a portrait of the future if we don't do something now," he said. "It's going to keep beating down on families, small businesses, large businesses, it's going to be a huge drain on the economy. We're going to have to do something about it."
There is little doubt the Republicans will attend the summit; whether they will move off their obstructionist position on reform remains to be seen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, said he welcomed "the opportunity to share ideas with the President," adding: "We know there are a number of issues with bipartisan support that we can start with when the 2,700-page bill is put on the shelf."