The White House expected a slam-dunk at Thursday's health summit — another tour-de-force by President Obama that would convince rank-and-file Democrats in Congress that the time's come to push the reform bill through. That didn't happen — but the push is still on.
The president's advisers seemed to expect the Blair House event to repeat President Obama's triumph at last month's House Republican retreat in Baltimore. But there, he was on stage, flanked by flags and behind a microphone and podium looking down on Republicans who were sitting around tables at lunch.
The staging there put that GOP crowd at a disadvantage, subordinating substance to style. Thursday's gathering was a different story.
With the president and members of Congress all around a table talking with each other as equals, it was clear that Republicans held their own on health care — an issue they're clearly taking ownership of. They got far less than half the airtime, but still succeeded in making coordinated arguments on behalf of a step-by-step approach to reform.
The summit was not the game-changer the White House hoped it would be. Will the adminstration go to "plan B," and support a smaller (though possibly still bad) bill that can draw GOP votes and command solid majorities in both houses?
Or will it continue to insist on passing a wildly unpopular, comprehensive overhaul of one-sixth of our economy that three out of four Americans reject?
The president opened the summit by saying that Republicans and Democrats aren't far apart on health reform because they share concerns about growing deficits and rising health costs. But the debate showed the two sides have very different approaches to solving those problems.
The president's plan and the House and Senate bills rely on more regulation and scores of new government programs to control our wayward health sector. Republicans believe in providing incentives for more competition, consumer choice, and price transparency to force changes in the marketplace.
Thursday's dialogue helped the American people see the wide ideological differences — and made it plain that Republicans simply don't believe it is possible to fix the Democrats' bills, because the specter of government control is woven into their fabric. Democrats, meanwhile, strongly distrust the market and will never agree to the competition-based ideas that are integral to the Republicans' reforms.
Both sides walked out just as they walked in, disagreeing fundamentally on the best approach to health reform.
So what's next? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is determined to use the budget-reconciliation process to jam ObamaCare through the Senate — but that requires huge exertions from House Democrats.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi needs to convince her rank-and-file members to swallow hard and pass the Senate bill so it can then be "fixed" through reconciliation. They have to vote for the Cadillac tax and giveaways like the Cornhusker Kickback — and trust that the Senate will then go along with removing all those poison pills.
If Pelosi had the votes, the bill would be on the floor in a day. She doesn't.
The summit didn't move the needle. Yet the White House remains absolutely determined to pass this legislation — so we await the next act.
Democratic leaders realize they may be unable to muster the votes to pass their 2,700-page bill; they're contemplating taking a rifle-shot approach to pass parts of ObamaCare, piece by piece. But that's at least as risky — because it will take longer, and allow scrutiny on the costs and intrusiveness of each part of their plan.