WASHINGTON -- First he called congressional Democrats' yearlong march toward health care overhaul an ugly process. Now President Barack Obama wants to talk directly with Republicans, the very people his Capitol Hill allies call obstinate and uncooperative.
It's no wonder Democratic lawmakers are less than enthusiastic about Obama's overture to the GOP.
The president has blamed special deals cut on Capitol Hill for the public's skepticism about health care legislation, distancing himself from what he's called "this Congress," even though his White House was closely involved in the process. For their part, some congressional Democrats clamored for stronger leadership from Obama after an upset loss in a special election last month denied Democrats their filibuster-proof Senate majority, plunging the health overhaul into disarray.
But with the legislation languishing, the bipartisan health care summit Obama has set for later this month almost has to break the logjam, even if neither Democrats nor Republicans are particularly excited about it. Either the two parties come together against all odds or the event demonstrates that no bipartisan outcome is possible, spurring Democrats to act alone. Or, the summit is a bust and the entire health care overhaul falls apart.
"I think this is sort of his last-ditch effort" at a bipartisan deal, said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.
"Unless there's a dramatic change by the Republicans, I don't think that we'll see much change," Miller said. But, he added, "the president believes this is important. I don't disagree with what he's trying to do."
Democrats see a few scenarios that could emerge from the Feb. 25 event, planned as a half-day televised forum. Details on attendees and format remain scant.
One possibility is that Republicans make a poor showing at the summit, emboldening Democrats to strong-arm their sweeping health legislation through Congress with no GOP votes, which would require the use of controversial rules in the Senate. Another is that Democrats find a way to incorporate some Republican proposals, such as curbs on medical malpractice lawsuits, into legislation. Then they'd essentially call Republicans' bluff by forcing them to vote on it.
Less plausibly, in the view of Democrats, Obama could emerge from the event with an agreement with Republicans and move to pass legislation with bipartisan support that surely would be far narrower in scope than what Democrats have been aiming for. A number of Republicans have made overtures in that direction, including an invitation from Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to Obama to work together toward shared goals of expanding coverage and reducing costs.
Finally, although most Democrats are reluctant even to say it, the summit could stand as a piece of political theater but fail to create the impetus needed to pass any legislation, effectively sounding the death knell on the health care overhaul.
If White House officials have charted any one of these endgames, they're not saying. Obama has returned to striking the bipartisan notes he hit when the health overhaul drive began almost exactly a year ago. But for members of both parties, those notes have soured.
"This is how the whole thing started to begin with. We had a bipartisan summit at the same time last year, and we didn't end up in a very good place," said Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., a moderate who voted against the health legislation in the House. "And that was when the political climate was much different" -- more favorable to Democrats and Obama.
House and Senate Republican leaders greeted the summit announcement with calls for scrapping the existing Democratic-passed bills and starting over. The top two House Republicans suggested they might not even attend. That raised Democrats' skepticism about whether the summit could bear bipartisan fruit.
"If this is basically a game where you're going to insist upon a (fresh) start with a clean sheet of paper all over again, then frankly it won't amount to much, this effort," Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., said.
Many Democrats believe the likeliest way forward is for the House to pass the Senate health care bill, and then for both chambers to pass a package of changes to fix elements House Democrats don't like, including a tax on high-value insurance plans opposed by organized labor and a special Medicaid deal for Nebraska.
The package of changes could pass under rules allowing for a simple majority vote in the Senate, rather than the 60-vote supermajority Democrats lost with Massachusetts Republican Sen. Scott Brown's election. Work continues behind closed doors to craft the package, with lawmakers aiming to finish it ahead of the summit.
Moderate Democrats in both chambers are cool to the simple majority approach, which surely would infuriate Republicans and risks being perceived as a partisan gambit.