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Healthcare Summit: Road to Bipartisanship or Political Theater?

Janice Simmons, for HealthLeaders Media, February 25, 2010

For the past few weeks, the national conversation on healthcare reform has been getting louder and is expected to reach a crescendo today as select Democratic and GOP congressional members meet with President Obama for the healthcare summit at 10 a.m. EST at Blair House in Washington.

Millions of viewers are expected to watch on the White House Web site and C-SPAN to see whether the summit can achieve a bipartisan agreement that moves a final bill through Congress.

The pre-soundbites were in clear evidence in anticipation of the summit Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), speaking to a group of participants on Capitol Hill who had just ended a march supporting reform, said that "healthcare reform is not about political parties fighting with each. It's about people fighting for their lives."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, in speaking to the same crowd, decided to paraphrase Mark Twain by saying: "Reports on the death of American healthcare reform have been greatly exaggerated."

GOP members from both sides of the Capitol, though, indicated that they had their own plans. "If the White House wants real bipartisanship, then it needs to drop the proposal it posted [Monday], which is no different in its essentials than anything we've seen before—and start over," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

On the House side, the GOP has gone one step further and created what it calls a "truth squad"—a congressional team of Republicans "ready to fact check misstatements from Washington Democrats and highlight Republicans' better solutions to lower healthcare costs," said House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) on his Web site.

For Thursday's summit, President Obama will begin with opening remarks—followed by remarks from a Republican leader and a Democratic leader. Obama will also moderate discussions on four topics:

  • Insurance reforms
  • Cost containment
  • Expanding coverage
  • The impact healthcare legislation will have on deficit reduction

What will be on display is whether the President will be able to recapture the momentum of the bills—HR 3952 in the House and HR 3590 in the Senate—from months ago. That momentum stalled with the election of Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA), which cost Democrats their super majority in the Senate.

But the House has seen changes in its membership as well since Nov. 7 when the healthcare reform bill was approved by the slimmest of margins: 220-215.

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