By Rick Klein
Six hours for what, exactly, again? Yes, the health care summit is on White House home turf. But really what President Obama needs is to play a different game — since this one’s been going on a while, and we're pretty sure we know how it ends (or doesn't). For all the words we’ll hear Thursday, the two sides are still talking past each other. Or, since the real goal isn’t being heard on the other side, maybe it’s that they’re talking through each other: Democrats are eyeing a procedural end-around whereby Republicans won’t be necessary, and Republicans are peering toward an electoral goal line whereby Democrats would become less plentiful. The summit is an opportunity for President Obama to make the sale — though it’s not like there’s a new product to pitch. This White House has seldom lacked for opportunities to sell concepts to the public, and the president has never lacked for talent on that front. Yet here we are in late February of the mid-term election year, still talking health care. Will it catch on in a different way — strong enough to reverse some polling trends, and stiffen some Democratic spines? And any surprises on a stage where everyone and everything is a potential prop? It “could be pure theater,” Vice President Joe Biden, God love him, tells the Wilmington News Journal’s Nicole Guadiano. “This could end up not being good.” ABC’s Jake Tapper, on the sequence of events around the hollow square table at Blair House, starting at 10 am ET: “The meeting will begin with remarks by President Obama for roughly seven minutes. That will be followed by remarks by Republican leaders for the same amount of time, divided however they see fit. Democratic leaders will follow for seven minutes more. The President will then moderate what one senior White House official described as a ‘free-flowing discussion,’ broken into four categories.” Each topic gets its own introducer, per the White House: “1) Controlling costs — introduced by the President; 2) Insurance reforms — introduced by Secretary Sebelius; 3) Reducing the deficit — introduced by the Vice President; and 4) Expanding coverage — introduced by the President.” Final positioning — HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Office of Health Reform director Nancy-Ann DeParle, in a Washington Post op-ed: “Today, Democrats and Republicans have a chance to come together, share their best ideas and unite behind reforms that will put families and small-business owners back in control of their health care…. That's why we think Republicans should find a lot to like in the proposal President Obama released on Monday.” And/but … “With so much common ground, it would be a shame for anyone to delay needed reforms by insisting on a specific package of changes. That's why President Obama and this administration are going into today's meeting with an open mind. We're ready to hear Republicans' best ideas, and we hope they're ready to hear ours,” they write. House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, in an AOL News op-ed: “For all the ink spilled over Thursday's health care summit, it really boils down to one question: Who is listening to the American people?” “This latest Democrats-only backroom deal snuffed out any chance that this summit could serve as the starting point for a bipartisan consensus. Democrats are instead hoping that this media event can be the gateway to a final push that involves circumventing the will of the people and jamming a bill through using parliamentary tricks. This is the same arrogance and overreaching that the American people are so fed up with,” Boehner writes. “Obama's toughest audience Thursday may be members of his own party, who have been feuding since a Massachusetts special election cost Democrats their 60th vote in the Senate,” The Washington Post’s Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery report. “Health-care reform has become so fraught politically that House leaders worry about losing Blue Dogs who previously supported the bill, as they run for cover in their districts.” “House and Senate Democratic leaders are pinning their hopes on Obama to do what he does best: deliver a powerful presentation that inspires them to get on board with what many are viewing as their last shot at passing health care reform,” Roll Call’s Jennifer Bendery reports. “A compelling performance from the president before a national TV audience could rally public opinion, which might lock down the votes of some liberal and conservative Democrats who've wavered in their willingness to endorse the Senate-passed healthcare bill,” Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times. “A weak performance, on the other hand, or a public display of partisan bickering or sloganeering by congressional Democrats could send prospects for healthcare and the party's political fortunes plunging.” The president “heads into the session hoping to transform the debate over health care from a referendum on Democrats' proposals — which he's been losing — into a choice between Democratic and Republican ideas over how to fix a system that both sides think needs fixing,” McClatchy’s Steven Thomma and David Lightman write. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to The Hill’s Alexander Bolton: “I would urge the president to play a very dominant role, to use his bully pulpit and to push. … He has now, essentially, in a sense staked his presidency on this bill.” (Now?) We think we know, but that’s why they play the game: “What happens when you put President Obama, members of Congress and four cameras in one room — bipartisan compromise on contentious health care legislation or pandering for the television audience?” ABC’s Karen Travers writes. Please introduce us to the one of four: “Public expectations are low for today's high-profile White House summit on health care: Three of four Americans in a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll predict President Obama and congressional leaders won't reach agreement on a bill,” Susan Page reports. It’s all about the votes — and keep an eye on retiring Democrats who voted against health care last time, ABC’s Jake Tapper reported on “Good Morning America” Thursday. Whether they have the votes — “that’s what will determine the path forward,” he said. Fallback options: “President Barack Obama will use a bipartisan summit Thursday to push for sweeping health-care legislation, but if that fails to generate enough support the White House has prepared the outlines of a more modest plan,” The Wall Street Journal’s Laura Meckler reports. “His leading alternate approach would provide health insurance to perhaps 15 million Americans, about half what the comprehensive bill would cover, according to two people familiar with the planning.” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, to Robin Roberts on “GMA”: “I think there are the votes to pass health care reform, because the American people know the course that we are on is not sustainable.” Is a fallback falling down? “The skinny bill doesn’t actually fix the broken system,” The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn writes. “It doesn’t re-engineer the insurance market, so that anybody can get insurance regardless of pre-existing condition; it doesn’t strengthen requirements on existing coverage, so that the insured can be safe in the knowledge that they’ll be protected if they get sick; and it doesn’t make as much progress towards cost control.” “There's no political upside in starting over,” Ezra Klein writes at his Washington Post blog. “Letting health-care reform fail is indistinguishable from conceding the 2010 election. There's no real fallback plan. If Democrats fall back, they fall.” Think of it like a presidential debate — and Republicans already have, Karl Rove writes: “In an unusual approach, House and Senate members prepped together the way a candidate preps for a presidential debates — by pulling together debate books and conducting mock sessions. … Today's event should be treated as a debate. Facts, humor, and using the president's own words to refute his assertions could carry the day. Republicans need to be mindful of winning over those who are watching.” Defense all around? “[Democrats] will strive to project a strong sense that they’re in listening mode, even as they make it clear that under no circumstances will they scrap their plans and start again,” The Plum Line’s Greg Sargent reports. “Top Dems also agreed to make a concerted effort to highlight Republican ideas that are already in Obama’s bill, in order to disarm GOP charges that Dems aren’t serious about compromise.” Or is this really offense? Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn.: “Tomorrow we'll have that meeting,” Dodd said at a rally, per the AP. “But far more important after that meeting, you can either join us or get out of the way.” Last best chance for some bipartisan buy-in? “One way Mr. Obama could throw Republicans off stride would be to make a bold opening offer to embrace one of their health care priorities, like limiting medical malpractice lawsuits — an idea one Democrat close to the White House said had been under consideration,” The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David Herszenhorn report. “But, this Democrat said, such an offer appeared unlikely, in part because Republicans seem dug in against the president’s plan and in part because it would arouse the ire of Mr. Obama’s Democratic base.” Who’s going to bring the Salahis? ABC’s Jake Tapper has the back story on the skirmishing over invite lists — and why Republicans may want Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., as their extra guest. Damned if… “The recent shift toward more assertiveness has irked Republicans and Democrats alike, failed to bridge political differences and even threatens initiatives ranging from the 9/11 terror trials to financial regulation,” Jonathan Weisman writes in The Wall Street Journal. Outside of that room — speaking of flexibility: “The Obama administration is no longer insisting on the creation of a stand-alone consumer protection agency as a central element of the plan to remake regulation of the financial system,” David Cho and Brady Dennis report in The Washington Post. “In hopes of quick congressional approval of a reform bill, White House officials are opening the door to compromise with lawmakers concerned about creating a new bureaucracy.” In New York — the big story finally drops on Gov. David Paterson, D-N.Y., as he scrambles for footing: “Last fall, a woman went to court in the Bronx to testify that she had been violently assaulted by a top aide to Gov. David A. Paterson, and to seek a protective order against the man,” The New York Times reports. “In the ensuing months, she returned to court twice to press her case, complaining that the State Police had been harassing her to drop it. The State Police, which had no jurisdiction in the matter, confirmed that the woman was visited by a member of the governor’s personal security detail.” “The case involved David W. Johnson, 37, who had risen from working as Mr. Paterson’s driver and scheduler to serving in the most senior ranks of the administration, but who also had a history of altercations with women. On Wednesday night, in response to inquiries from The New York Times, Mr. Paterson said in a statement that he would request that Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo investigate his administration’s handling of the matter. The governor also said he would suspend Mr. Johnson without pay.” Politico’s Ben Smith sees the end: “A new report that New York Governor David Paterson and his state police bodyguards personally intervened in the domestic violence case against a close aide appears likely to end the governor's tottering political career. … The story draws to a close a modest revival in the political fortunes of the New York governor.” In Florida — Rubio scrutiny: “U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio charged grocery bills, repairs to the family minivan and purchases from a wine store less than a mile from his West Miami home to the Republican Party of Florida while he was speaker of the Florida House, according to records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald,” Beth Reinhard and Scott Hiaasen report. “Rubio said Wednesday that he paid for all personal expenses billed to an American Express card given to him by the party to use from 2005 to 2008, when he left public office. The rest of the charges, he said, were legitimate party expenses.” More from the oppo files — in Nevada: “Republican Sue Lowden’s company gave her husband a $200,000 bonus last year — bringing the couple’s combined paycheck to nearly $1 million — even as it slashed more than 100 jobs and eliminated the employee savings match, according to an annual report,” Lisa Mascaro writes in the Las Vegas Sun. “Lowden, the Republican Senate hopeful, and her husband, Paul Lowden, own Archon Corp., which runs the Pioneer Hotel & Gambling Hall in Laughlin.” Senor for Senate? “Dan Senor, the husband of CNN's Campbell Brown and a former Bush administration foreign policy adviser, is eyeing a run as a Republican against Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand,” the New York Post’s Maggie Haberman and Fred Dicker report. “Senor has already spoken with state GOP chairman Ed Cox, The Knickerbocker confirmed. Senor is the founder of Rosemont Capital LLC, and brings to his resume the fact that he was among the civilian officials who served the longest in Iraq as the post-Saddam Hussein government was being established.” What you really need to know out of Wednesday’s Toyota hearing: “Corporate leaders in Japan are affable cheerleaders who solicit everyone's views and avoid confrontation at almost any cost. It's called ‘nemawashi.’ U.S. lawmakers are cut-throat partisans who clamor for the spotlight, especially in an election year. It's called politics,” the AP’s Ron Fournier writes. “These cultures collided Wednesday in the appearance of a polite man from a distant land before a congressional committee stocked with angry men and women with axes to grind.” Bill O’Reilly, happy where he is: “I have more power doing what I'm doing, OK, than getting involved in the political process,” he told George Stephanopoulos on “GMA.” Plus: “Sarah Palin needs to go to college, political college, world affairs college. And she is.”
The Kicker: “It’s a little spooky, it is bizarre because you would think that being a candidate for president would matter more than hosting a talk show. Apparently not.” — Former Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., on getting recognized more as a Fox host than he did as a presidential candidate. “Literally, if they come up with an idea that bends that [cost] curve, we'll compromise.” — Vice President Joe Biden, asking for acrobatics from Republicans.
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