WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s call for a healthcare summit including both his fellow Democrats and Republicans sets the stage for a final push to get stalled legislation through Congress, but skeptical Republicans said on Monday the only solution is to start over.
Obama asked Republicans to bring their best ideas for overhauling the U.S. healthcare system to the February 25 conference in hopes of rejuvenating the issue, which has floundered since Democrats lost their crucial 60th Senate vote last month.
The summit, which Obama wants televised, would give him another chance to sway public opinion on the unpopular legislation, which is critical to his domestic agenda.
The meeting also would answer criticism that Obama did not engage Republicans and instead negotiated backroom deals in an effort to get healthcare legislation passed.
“The president is trying to turn around the sour mood on this issue and mitigate the criticism that he’s ramming this bill down people’s throats,” said Bob Blendon, a health policy and political analyst at Harvard University.
But congressional Republicans said they were wary of Obama’s intentions and in no mood to compromise on a plan that polls show is opposed by a majority of Americans.
“Republicans welcome honest discussion, but this event reeks of political gamesmanship,” said Republican Representative Tom Price. “The only constructive discussions will start with a blank sheet of paper.”
The White House said the summit was not intended as a vehicle to start the healthcare debate all over again.
The reform effort would lead to the biggest policy changes in the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system since the creation of the Medicare government health insurance program for the elderly in 1965.
“The president doesn’t think we should start over,” White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said.
The session will give Republicans a chance to explain their unified opposition to the bill. They see their stance as a key to their upset victory in Massachusetts last month, when Republican Scott Brown claimed the Senate seat of late Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy.
“I don’t think it’s probably possible to compromise on this bill,” Representative Dave Camp, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, told Reuters.
“The structure of it is done in such a way that it is going to raise costs, raise taxes and empower government to get between people and their doctors,” he said.
Some said the setting — a televised meeting of top leaders in both parties — could lead to more political point-making than compromise and progress.
“In Washington, negotiations don’t happen in front of cameras,” Concept Capital, a private firm that tracks Congress and the White House for investors, wrote in a report.
Fox News said on Monday it had obtained a letter sent to Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, by John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the top two Republicans in the House, questioning Obama’s commitment to working with members of both parties.
Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said that, on the contrary, the president was looking forward to reviewing Republican ideas.
“He’s open to including any good ideas that stand up to objective scrutiny,” Gibbs said in a statement. “What he will not do, however, is walk away from reform and the millions of American families and small business counting on it. The recent news that a major insurer plans to raise premiums for some customers by as much as 39 percent is a stark reminder of the consequences of doing nothing.”
A summit marked by more partisan gridlock could give Obama an excuse to move ahead on the bill through a budget process that requires only a simple majority of 51 votes in the 100-member Senate, bypassing Republican opposition.
“Obama seems to be sending a signal they are going to go for the end run,” Blendon said. “When he does, he can say ‘I tried.’”
The battle over healthcare has consumed Congress since summer and Democrats are anxious to focus on job creation and the economy before congressional elections in November.
The bills would extend coverage to millions of the uninsured and impose restrictions on insurers like requiring them to cover those with pre-existing medical conditions.
The Senate and House of Representatives had passed separate bills last year and were working to merge them when Brown’s election cut the process short.
Democrats said they hope to end the process before the summit so they have a final product to offer and that their bills already include many Republican ideas.
“We have promoted the pursuit of a bipartisan approach to health reform from day one,” Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said.
Additional reporting by Donna Smith, Steve Holland, Susan Cornwell and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Vicki Allen