This coming Thursday's Health Care Summit at the White House may offer the last real chance to break partisan gridlock in the capital in 2010.
Survey data show President Obama's approval rating hovering just above or below 50 percent and Democratic prospects in this fall's congressional elections to be slipping. Democratic Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, favored for reelection, shocked his colleagues last week by dropping out of the race with accompanying negative comments about the Congress' performance.
With the loss of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts seat, Democrats no longer hold the 60 votes necessary to end debate and force a vote on legislation. Moreover, Democrats in Senate and House remain divided about the final content of a health-care package.
Recognizing all this, Obama last week returned to the bipartisan themes of his 2008 electoral campaign. He announced the appointment by executive order of a bipartisan commission to make deficit-reduction recommendations. Moreover, he took a risky political step by suggesting that the present tax cap on payroll earnings be lifted, thus easing financial pressure on Social Security and Medicare. (Other steps could include lifting the retirement age and revising annual COLA adjustments).
With fanfare, Obama invited Republican congressional leaders to the Thursday summit, expressing the hope that bipartisan health-care ground might be found during the televised proceedings.
Since then, however, both Republicans and Democrats appear to have hardened their positions on the pending legislation. Republicans. fearing Obama will use them as foils on Thursday, have taken a general "start over from scratch" posture. Some Democrats, with seeming perversity, are attempting to revive the "public option" provision that most inflames Republicans and is missing from the present Senate version of the bill.
Obama, somewhat mysteriously, said late last week he would unveil his own version — puzzling House and Senate Democrats who thought they already had passed legislation to be the basis for conference-committee proceedings and final floor votes. The White House early today unveiled one element of Obama's new plan, including new federal constraints on private health-insurance rate increases — a measure that would face GOP opposition.
Entering this critical week, no signs have appeared of the kind of behind-the-scenes discussions that would be necessary between White House and Congress, Democrats and Republicans to arrive at any kind of bipartisan compromise this Thursday. Instead, the partisan noise level has risen and failure appears to be presumed.
Even so, could something positive still happen Thursday? Congressional leaders appear unprepared to do it, so Obama would have to seize leadership. He could open the meeting by dramatically announcing his willingness to accept genuine tort reform in the legislation. That would please Republicans, independents, and probably a majority of voters. But it would enrage trial lawyers, a major force within the Democratic Party, and Democratic legislators who kept tort reform out of their bills.
Obama also could signal acceptance of a Republican-favored proposal to allow insurance companies to sell across state lines. That, too, would sit well with a probable majority of voters but would be hard to swallow for congressional Democrats. What could he give those Democrats to compensate for his concessions on tort reform and across-state-line insurance? It is hard to think of anything which also could be accepted by Republicans.
The odds are at least 60-40 against anything that could be considered a substantive success. But I have not yet given up hope on the meeting. Democrats need health-care legislation to prove that they can get something done while holding strong majorities in both houses of Congress. Republicans need to shake the perception that they are the "against" party and not interested in compromise.
Even the smallest bipartisan compromise or sign of statesmanship Thursday would help break gridlock on other issues. Failure, however, would deepen fault lines and set the stage for increasingly nasty partisanship between now and November elections.