The Narratives: Urgent Business of the Nation vs. a Hollow Bill

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Today, around 10:00 a.m, EST, President Obama will take his seat at Blair House. Seated next to him will be Vice President Biden, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and members of the Congressional leadership. Other members will be seated around the square. One still photographer and four pool cameras will beam the meeting to the world, and through White House.gov.  The menu begins with a discussion about controlling costs -- Obama will introduce this segment. Then Sebelius, the former Kansas insurance commissioner, will talk about insurance reforms; then Vice President Biden will talk about the deficit, and another discussion with ensue. Finally, the President will introduce a section about expanding access.  Six hours, with a 40 minute break. Live coverage on cable, C-SPAN and network websites.

Mark Knoller of CBS News observes, correctly, that the presence of television cameras makes it unlikely for a bipartisan breakthrough. "If the televised proceedings of the House and Senate are a guide, the summit broadcast will provide six hours of political posturing about the proper role of government in regulating and mandating health care coverage." Safe to say that the White House shares this view -- and that Republicans know they're walking into a bit of a trap. There is just no way to know how the White House has decided to structure the conversation, and even though the Democratic plan (Obama's plan) is unpopular as a concept, the Democrats have one thing Republicans don't: a plan that actually address the four areas that will be subject to discussion. It is hard to figure out why Republicans, whose plan largely addressed those with insurance, failed to address the need to expand coverage -- as least politically -- even though they know that it is the conflict between the policies one pursues to expand coverage that clash with the policies pursued to make sure people get to keep their insurance don't pay more. 

Republicans might let Democrats redefine their baseline for them -- the party has spent the day sending reporters an "off the record" document pointing out the GOP plan's deficiencies. Basically, the White House will sing this refrain: the Boehner plan increases premiums for the sick (people entering into new high risk pools could face premiums 50% higher than now, and the states would foot part of the bill), leaves 53 million people uninsured, does nothing to end insurance company abuses, and doesn't reduce the deficit as much as the Democratic plan. Obama also has a list of Republican ideas he adopted -- and will ask Republicans for ideas that they've adopted from Democrats.

Knoller is right: today's meeting is not about policy breakthroughs -- it's about putting Republicans into a box and moving public opinion. Obama wants transparency; he recognizes the need to work with Republicans; Republicans are giving him nothing to work with. If public opinion shifts -- or appears to shift -- House Democrats might be in a position to quickly pass the Obama bill. They need to keep liberals and flip at least moderate votes; six hours of performance for three single votes....

BTW: Newt Gingrich will host his own townhall meeting online tomorrow, also at 10:00 am, at
www.healthtransformation.net.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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