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Boehner And Cantor Offer List Of Demands For Health Care Summit; Gibbs Responds

A high-level exchange of letters Monday night in snowy Washington, as the House Republican leadership essentially paves the way for blowing off President Obama’s proposed health care summit by asking for a list of demands, and the White House responds by basically rejecting them.

First, the Republican letter, from Minority Leader John Boehner and Minority Whip Eric Cantor, asking 10 questions about the proposed talks, few of which were actual questions rather than requests. “Will (the President) agree to start over” on a new bill is one, and another asks if reconciliation, the process allowing the Senate to pass budget-related items with only 50 votes, is off the table. Other requests are familiar – wanting whatever legislative proposal on display at the summit to be up on the Web for 72 hours, for example. But most of them are intended to outflank the Democrats by bringing up some of the faults of the bill’s process to this point. For example:

Will the President include in this discussion congressional Democrats who have opposed the House and Senate health care bills? This bipartisan discussion should reflect the bipartisan opposition to both the House bill and the kickbacks and sweetheart deals in the Senate bill […]

Finally, as you know, this is the first televised White House health care meeting involving the President since last March. Many health care meetings of the closed-door variety have been held at the White House since then, including one last month where a sweetheart deal was worked out with union leaders. Will the special interest groups that the Obama Administration has cut deals with be included in this televised discussion?

Of course, Americans have been dismayed by the fact that the President has broken his own pledge to hold televised health care talks. We can only hope this televised discussion is the beginning, not the end, of attempting to correct that mistake. Will the President require that any and all future health care discussions, including those held on Capitol Hill, meet this common-sense standard of openness and transparency?

“Your answers to these critical questions will help determine whether this will be a truly open, bipartisan discussion or merely an intramural exercise before Democrats attempt to jam through a job-killing health care bill that the American people can’t afford and don’t support,” the letter concludes. Clearly, there’s a lot of positioning here, preparing the ground for inevitably having to cancel out of the summit.

How did Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary, respond? Thusly.

The President is adamant that we seize this historic moment to pass meaningful health insurance reform legislation. He began this process by inviting Republican and Democratic leaders to the White House on March 5 of last year, and he’s continued to work with both parties in crafting the best possible bill. He’s been very clear about his support for the House and Senate bills because of what they achieve for the American people: putting a stop to insurance company abuses, extending coverage to millions of hardworking Americans, getting control of rising premiums and out-of-pocket costs, and reducing the deficit.

The President looks forward to reviewing Republican proposals that meet the goals he laid out at the beginning of this process, and as recently as the State of the Union Address. He’s open to including any good ideas that stand up to objective scrutiny. What he will not do, however, is walk away from reform and the millions of American families and small business counting on it. The recent news that a major insurer plans to raise premiums for some customers by as much as 39 percent is a stark reminder of the consequences of doing nothing.

It doesn’t answer a whole lot, but states pretty firmly that the bills which passed the House and Senate would be the base for discussion, and they would not be scrapped. I fully expect Republicans to sorrowfully say that they can no longer participate in such a sham of an exercise.

This will doubtlessly make David Broder weep real tears. But the summit was more of an exercise than anything else, and now the real exercise will be the spin war over which side backed out or which side proved their point. Republicans don’t want a bill at all and don’t want to help Democrats get to one, and Democrats just wanted to add a patina of transparency and bipartisanship onto the process to soothe jittery members of their caucus. Doesn’t look like this summit will provide that.

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David Dayen

David Dayen