Setting the Now-Open-Squared Table for the Bipartisan Health Care Reform Summit

Feb 24, 2010 4:28pm

Everything from speaking order, to attendees, to the shape of the table for tomorrow’s bipartisan health care reform summit has been discussed and hammered out.

During a “walk-through” at Blair House yesterday, Republicans talked about wanting to bring additional staffers, and wanting to change the shape of the table configuration from a “U” to a “hollow square.”

The original plan was to have President Obama, the House and Senate Democratic and Republican leadership, and the chairmen and ranking Republicans of relevant committees sit around the “U,” with the sixteen additional members of Congress sitting in an audience-like space.

Republicans wanted those additional members of the House and Senate – four from the House Democrats, four from the House Republicans, four from Senate Democrats, and four from Senate Republicans — at the table. 

Said one GOP congressional official,  “it would be awkward to have members of Congress sitting at the kiddy table.”

On both the additional staffers and the seating arrangements, President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership acquiesced.

Republicans also call it an oversight to have no governors or state legislators at the table, but that hasn’t changed. Members of Congress, after all, will be the ones passing – or not passing – this legislation.

What Will Come Of This?

White House officials say they will honestly be listening for Republican ideas to add to health care reform legislation.

But if, as expected, the meeting results in no bipartisan agreement on health care reform, will it have been for naught? Not necessarily, if one thinks of it as mainly a communications vehicle.

The president and Democratic leaders will be communicating with the public. Their message: we’re working on getting a good bill through, one free of the “Cornhusker compromise” and other matters from the less-than-perfect legislative process. This will be good for the American people. Their message is also aimed at Democratic lawmakers: this will be a good thing. Be part of it.

The message from Republican leaders: this bill will tax too much, regulate too much, and borrow too much. The American people do not want it, and yet Democrats are forcing it upon them. The GOP prefers more incremental progress on reform, focused on reducing costs.

There is another possible implication from today’s meeting. The plan right now is for the House to pass the Senate plan, and the Senate and the House to pass something resembling the legislative “fix” that the White House posted on Monday. (The Senate Democrats would likely employ “reconciliation” rules, requiring only 51 votes instead of the 60 used to fend off a filibuster. More on that HERE and HERE.)

If after this weekend, however, either Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., thinks he doesn’t have the 51 votes for such a move, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. D-Calif., doesn’t think she has the 217 votes needed to pass the bill, which seems quite possible, Democrats would go to Plan B (or C, or D, or whatever we’re up to) wherein they introduce a more modest plan that can indeed secure some bipartisan support. A plan with perhaps some tax credits for small businesses to provide insurance for their employees, and some insurance company reforms, maybe a smaller expansion of Medicaid and closing the “donut-hole” for recipients of the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Which Republicans would support such a measure?

The White House doesn’t think that Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., or House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, would do so in any set of circumstances.

“The president could grab the six leading Republican (health care reform) bills, put his name on them and introduce them and Boehner and McConnell would still vote against them,” one senior administration official said.

But perhaps one of the eight Republicans who voted to filibuster the jobs bill earlier this week but ultimately supported it today. Or one of the Republicans who voted to bring the jobs bill up for a vote, such as Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, or retiring Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Kit Bond of Missouri.

And what that bill ends up looking like, should this path end up being traversed, could be impacted by tomorrow’s summit.

The Format of Tomorrow’s “Free-Wheeling” Meeting

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.

•             The first will be on controlling costs, a topic to be introduced by the President.

•             The topic of insurance reforms will be second, introduced by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

•             Vice President Biden will kick off the third topic, reducing the deficit/fiscal responsibility.

•             President Obama will expand the fourth and final category, expanding health care coverage.

Participants will be seated at tables with name cards, staff seated behind them along the walls. The meeting will begin at 10:00 am and run until about 4:00 pm; there will be a roughly 45-minute lunch break after the second topic of insurance reforms is discussed. The White House will provide a buffet lunch.

– jpt

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