In a sign that Thursday’s much-hyped health care summit at the White House would amount to nothing more than a partisan grudge match, the Obama administration and congressional Republicans spent the last hours before the meeting squabbling over how many members of the minority party had been invited.
The White House on Wednesday evening sent out a schedule and list of the 38 lawmakers scheduled to attend the roughly six-hour meeting – all of which will be televised – and said Republican leaders “will designate one additional Republican member to attend.”
But an aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told the Daily Caller that the GOP had “named our team in adherence with the chief of staff’s letter,” referencing a Feb. 12 missive that laid out the ground rules for the meeting.
And the office of House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican, said they had been told by the White House they could not bring a House Republican, or a Republican governor as they wished to do.
“The White House told us directly we can’t invite another House member or a Governor. We’d certainly invite a Governor if we could,” said Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith.
The White House – which precipitated the dispute by adding Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, to the list of attendees on Wednesday afternoon – insisted they had told Republican leaders of both the Senate and House that they could bring an additional member from either chamber.
The petty fighting over technicalities threatened to derail any hopes that the meeting – which was already being widely dismissed by most observers as little more than political theater – would have even a hint of bipartisan cooperation.
House and Senate Republicans have been preparing for the session by coming together to conduct mock sessions, complete with briefing books, according to former Bush White House political adviser Karl Rove.
Symbolically, the marathon session on Thursday represents a beginning of sorts to what is assumed to be the final chapter, whatever the ultimate outcome, in the health care reform saga that began soon after Obama took office over a year ago.
Democrats are expected to try to move a bill through Congress in the coming weeks, most likely using a complicated and rarely used procedure called reconciliation which would allow them to pass a bill through the Senate with only 51 votes, instead of the 60-vote majority usually required to overcome a filibuster.
Even then, however, the prospects for passing any comprehensive bill through the House appear extremely unlikely, in part because of components in the bill and in part because the Democrats’ loss of their senate seat in Massachusetts in January has put many House Democrats who voted for the bill in November on edge about repeating their vote.
Democratic leaders argue that to have voted for it in November and to not vote for it the second time around would put lawmakers in the politically unfavorable position of being attacked by conservatives and liberals during election season this summer and fall.
But recent polling shows that support for a comprehensive bill is, in fact, quite low. An Opinion Research Corporation poll conducted for CNN and released Tuesday showed only 25 percent support for a continuation of work on the bill Democrats have spent the last year crafting.
A plurality of 48 percent respondents to the poll said they thought Congress should start work on a new bill, much as Republicans are calling for, and 25 percent said Congress should stop working on health care all together.
But a loss on the issue would be a heavy political blow to Obama. Even if the signature initiative of his first year cannot be salvaged, he has made it clear he intends to do everything within his power to try.
Republicans insist that the Obama plan is a government-centric solution that can only be solved by making care providers and insurers accountable to consumers, and that the framework for the president’s plan must be scrapped in favor of starting over.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. and go until 4 p.m., with a break for lunch that House Democrats said would include a dash back to the Capitol for a quick round of voting.
Obama will sit at the head of a hollow square of tables, flanked by Vice President Joseph R. Biden and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. To his left and the TV viewer’s right will sit 17 Republicans. To his right, the viewer’s left, 21 Democrats.
The president will make an opening statement, followed by remarks from a Democratic leader and a Republican leader. And then the meeting will turn to what the White House has said will be a “free-flowing” discussion, focused on four sub topics.
For all the anticipation, one Republican leadership aide predicted that the policy talk will leave those expecting verbal combat or spirited debate disappointed.
“This will literally be a bore. It might be intriguing to watch the give and take – assuming they actually get into a back and forth discussion – for 20 minutes. But after that it’s going to be a tough watch,” the aide said.
One other point of interest the night before the meeting was the elevated role at the summit for Sebelius, the former governor of Kansas who has had a relatively low public profile in recent months.
Sebelius has become a central player again as she has focused attention on health insurance rate hikes in California that the administration has seized on as an example of why they must pass a health care bill this year.
“Sebelius has become a monster presence … in the last two weeks or three weeks,” the Republican aide said, speculating that she was being given an elevated role of late to make her something of a “scape goat” if health care fails to pass.
But Sebelius spokesman Nicholas Papas dismissed the notion that the HHS secretary has been out of the mix.
“She has worked closely with members of Congress and the administration’s team to get the job done,” Papas said.