WASHINGTON – Even as Republicans publicly welcome President Barack Obama's call for a bipartisan confab on health care, some privately worry that he might be laying a trap to portray their ideas as flimsy.
If so, a shaky showing by GOP leaders could possibly embolden congressional Democrats to make a final, aggressive push to overhaul the nation's health care system, with or without any Republican votes.
Some Republicans doubt that scenario, saying Democrats have lost momentum for any plan that's certain to draw fierce criticism. But they noted Monday that the White House has not backed away from its support of legislation similar to what the Democratic-controlled House and Senate passed separately in December over strong GOP objections.
"This is a clever tactic by the president to try to put the Republicans on the defensive," said John Feehery, a GOP consultant and former congressional aide. "There's a vast ideological gulf" between the two parties on health care, he said, making it likely that the Feb. 25 half-day meeting will be more showmanship than substance.
The House's top two Republican leaders openly questioned Obama's sincerity and hinted they might skip the meeting if he uses the Democratic bills as the starting point for discussions.
"Assuming the president is sincere about moving forward on health care in a bipartisan way, does that mean he will agree to start over?" said a letter to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel from House GOP leader John Boehner of Ohio and GOP Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.
"If the starting point for this meeting is the job-killing bills the American people have already soundly rejected, Republicans would rightly be reluctant to participate," Boehner and Cantor wrote.
They asked Obama to rule out the possibility of using "budget reconciliation" rules, which could allow Democrats to enact some health care provisions with a simple Senate majority, not the 60-vote super majority needed to halt filibusters. Democrats control 59 of the Senate's 100 seats.
In response to the letter, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs released a statement contending that Obama is "open to including any good ideas that stand up to objective scrutiny."
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said the president will not rule out the reconciliation route but is sincere in wanting to hear Republicans' ideas for improving the health care legislation.
In announcing his call for the bipartisan event in a CBS News interview Sunday, Obama was vague when asked whether he was willing to start from scratch on health care. But the White House circulated talking points saying the president is "adamant about passing comprehensive reform similar to the bills passed by the House and the Senate" shortly before Democrats lost their filibuster-proof Senate majority.
If that's true, Republicans said, what is the point of the Feb. 25 meeting? Some looked to the CBS interview for signs that Obama may use the televised event to depict Republicans' proposals as falling short in key areas.
"What I want to do is to look at the Republican ideas that are out there," Obama said. "And I want to be very specific. 'How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance markets so people with preexisting conditions, for example, can get health care? How do you want to make sure that the 30 million people who don't have health insurance can get it?'"
Republicans say their health care proposals are frugal and practical. But Obama may be able to cast unkind lights on some details, such as nonpartisan estimates that the House Republican bill would cover 3 million uninsured people while the Democratic version would cover 36 million.
All presidents command a bully pulpit, and Democrats feel Obama was especially nimble in parrying House Republicans' arguments and criticisms at a Jan. 29 televised event. The Feb. 25 setting could offer him a similar chance to spar with his critics.
The Boehner-Cantor letter sought to even the sides a bit. It called on the White House to invite pro-Republican analysts and Democratic lawmakers who voted against the Obama-backed legislation in December.
Liberal groups hope Americans will see the Republicans as obstructionists, possibly encouraging Democrats to use their still-sizable congressional majorities to enact their health care proposals via the budget reconciliation rules, without GOP help.
If the Feb. 25 meeting clarifies the sharp differences between the two parties, "that might be helpful," said Richard Kirsch of the liberal Heath Care for America Now.
But some Republicans said Obama runs the risk of appearing insincere if he convenes the bipartisan gathering without showing greater willingness to shelve or greatly change his party's proposals.
It's a gamble Democrats appear willing to take.
"I think the greatest risk for Democrats is passing nothing," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. "There are a lot of things the public may not support in a given moment, but later on, when things have quieted down, they may think of highly."
An overhaul of U.S. health care could fit that description, he said.
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