As 35 members of Congress prepare to troop down to Blair House for a White House summit on health care Thursday, one thing seems clear: no one is suffering from high expectations.
Senate Democrats met with their House counterparts Wednesday morning to discuss how the summit would go. A senior Senate Democratic leadership aide emerged to say the group basically decided to be mostly in "listening mode."
"We'll point out where there is common ground on some issues, for sure," the aide said, "But (Republicans) need to talk about what ideas they are for, besides being the party of 'No, No, No.' And we won't let them get away with saying that we just have to start over. That's not going to happen," the aide said.
But listening to Republican leaders, as they gathered in the office of Senator Mitch McConnell, R-KY, on Wednesday to strategize, that's exactly what they plan to do, and they appear certain that they have the American people on their side.
"I'm looking forward to (Thursday’s) meeting and hoping that the president will scrap the government takeover of healthcare and start over with a clean sheet of paper," House GOP Leader John Boehner, R-OH, told reporters.
When asked if there was any common ground that could be found, given that Democrats are highly unlikely to scrap a plan they've worked on for more than a year, McConnell, R-KY, emphatically said, "I don’t think so. What the American people are saying to us…is that they want us to put this bill on the shelf and start over and go step by step to work on the cost problem. Unless they're willing to do that, I think it's nearly impossible to imagine a scenario under which we would reach an agreement."
Around the table on Thursday, there might as well be sand with lots of lines drawn. The time for negotiating appears to be over, raising the specter that the summit will be more about a photo op/political theater for both sides of the aisle than about substance.
To be sure, Republicans will hit the need for medical malpractice reform, something President Obama has said he supports but has only committed resources for state-based experiments. Republicans, on this issue, like to point out that Democrats are in the pockets of trial lawyers, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, counting that profession on his resume, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius a former head of the Trial Lawyers Association in her state.
Republicans have also said they will bring up the need to allow Americans to ban together to buy insurance across state lines. Some Democrats support this, but most point out that this will create an adverse situation where people are venue shopping.
"Buying insurance across state lines, everyone knows the problems with that. It would drive to the lowest common denominator. That's something we will take a look at, but that's not the salvation to the problems that we have," Reid said on Tuesday.
Democrats want a national exchange, or online marketplace, where Americans who cannot get insurance through their employer, as well as small businesses, can get coverage at a more reasonable price, using the leverage of a larger buying pool. But Republicans smell a coup -- a move toward creating a so-called "public option," where the federal government is running a healthcare program and eventually squeezing out private enterprise.
Each side is deeply skeptical of the other, creating an atmosphere that will hardly be conducive to compromise.
And while Republicans push a piecemeal or "step-by-step" approach, as McConnell said, Senate Democrats are not about to let go of their $871 billion bill that has already passed the Senate.
"We have a health-care bill that has passed the Senate at 60 votes. We are anxious to have them involved in the process. They were involved for a while. And that, as you know, didn't pick up a single Republican vote," Reid told reporters Tuesday. "We've heard that they have ideas, and we look forward to those ideas. The president did this, because he wants to be able to reach out to the Republicans."
But one of those Republicans who was involved in compromise talks will not be attending the summit. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-ME, was invited by the White House, but the New England moderate politely turned the President down. Snowe’s spokesman, John Gentzel, told Fox it was because her leadership had not chosen her to attend.
“The Republican leadership had long since selected their team and therefore, it would have been inappropriate for Senator Snowe, under those circumstances, to accept the invitation,” Genztel said.
Complicating the picture on Thursday, is the 2010 midterm election calculus, in which many members could very well lose their seat -- and many can look to healthcare as a major cause for their precarious predicament. Political experts have even contemplated Democrats losing control of both chambers (in the Senate, however, that's highly unlikely).
Take a look at who's attending on the Senate side -- where six members are up for re-election:
=Reid --- he's in the political fight for his life, with his approval numbers deeply in the danger zone for an incumbent.
=Sen John McCain, R-AZ --- he's just gotten a conservative primary opponent in his race.
=Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-IA -- he was an early negotiator in the Senate's "Gang of Six", a bipartisan group on the Finance Committee that searched for a compromise to no avail; Grassley was slammed by constituents at the raucous August town hall meetings, with one even threatening toss the 5-termer from office if he gave in to what Democrats wanted.
The remaining three, Sens. Tom Coburn, R-OK, Chuck Schumer, D-NY, and Ron Wyden, D-OR, are all in safe elections, but this is an incredibly unpredictable campaign year and everyone seems vulnerable. One perceived wrong move can result in a primary opponent at your back.
Ideologies are strong on healthcare, and over the year, they've become more dug-in. One senior Senate GOP leadership aide told me Wednesday, "People have made up their minds on healthcare. No one is going to be moved by this meeting."