Is Health Care Overhaul Doomed to Failure?

Experts are skeptical about consensus even as Obama calls for bipartisanship.

ByABC News
February 10, 2010, 4:48 PM

Feb. 15, 2010— -- As Democrats and Republicans sharpen their knives ahead of President Obama's summit on health care, experts are questioning whether the president's health care agenda is doomed to fail just as President Clinton's did in the 1990's.

"If I had to place a bet on it, I would say two to one, it doesn't [pass]," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and a proponent of health care reform. "But it's not an absurd idea. It could happen. Given how much stake President Obama and Democrats have in it, they have to do something. ... They have every reason in the world to pull out all the stops to try and make it happen."

Obama has invited Republicans and Democrats to a televised bipartisan meeting on health care on Feb. 25, but experts are skeptical about whether the open event will be any more than political theater and actually achieve any concrete results in bringing both sides together.

"It could either be a choreographed professional wrestling match or it could be another 'Kumbaya' meeting, and I think both would be totally useless," said Uwe Reinhardt, a professor of political economy at Princeton University. "It should be a frank exchange -- thoughtful, polite, but the way adults should talk to each other."

The president is hoping to thaw the ice on a health care overhaul bill that right now faces grim prospects on Capitol Hill. By bringing both Republicans and Democrats to the table, the White House hopes to resurrect the momentum by energizing wary Democrats and staunchly opposed Republicans.

"Bipartisanship can't be that I agree to all the things that they [Republicans] believe in or want, and they agree to none of the things I believe in and want, and that's the price of bipartisanship," Obama said at an impromptu press conference Tuesday, "but that's sometimes the way it gets presented.

"I'm willing to move off some of the preferences of my party in order to meet them halfway," he said. "But there's got to be some give from their side as well. ... That's what I'm hoping gets accomplished at this summit."

Some health care experts say bringing the debate out in the open when talks haven't even really begun does not bode well for the future of health care overhaul.

"I don't think this is the right way to get that kind of dialogue taking place," said Stuart M. Butler, vice president of domestic and economic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "All this will do is lead to political sound bites and not much else, in my opinion."

The GOP leadership wants Obama to go back to the drawing board.

"Why are we going to talk about a bill that can't pass?" House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday, after a meeting with Obama on jobs. "It really is time to scrap the bill and start over."

Democrats have been relatively quiet and awaiting direction from Obama. After a whirlwind few months of crafting legislation that would get broad support and pass both the House and Senate, Democrats faced a striking blow when Sen. Scott Brown was elected to fill late Sen. Ted Kennedy's term. Brown vowed to become the 41st GOP senator to vote against the health care bill, deflating any hopes of passing the legislation as the majority party had planned.

Experts say the president made a mistake by stepping away from the debate and leaving it up to lawmakers. He now has to take the lead and play "hardball politics," Baker said.

"I think President Obama will have to work very, very aggressively ... [and] be prepared to pull out all the stops. That's the most likely path," Baker said. "If he could basically shame some of the more moderate Republicans such as [Maine Sen.] Olympia Snowe into coming on board in a public session and try to put them on the line, I think that might be a way he gets bipartisanship."

Sen. Judd Gregg, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, has also been billed as another GOP leader who has shows signs of bipartisanship on the health care front. But the senator from New Hampshire is also calling for the administration and lawmakers to start from scratch.

"I say, let's step back, let's start with a blank sheet of paper. And let's start putting on that sheet of paper things we can agree about," Gregg said in an MSNBC interview Friday.

Baker said he is "not terribly optimistic" about the summit at the end of this month. However, there are areas where Republicans and Democrats can come together and coalesce on a new bill.