Senate GOP Leaders Seek Ground Rules for Health Summit

Posted February 9, 2010 at 3:13pm

Senate Republican leaders stopped short Tuesday of threatening to boycott President Barack Obama’s bipartisan health care summit, but they stressed that the ground rules of the Feb. 25 meeting must be pre-negotiated to ensure the talks are substantive and not simply a public relations exercise to benefit the White House.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday afternoon that he discussed the planned summit with Obama while at the White House for a bipartisan meeting on pending jobs legislation, but that no conclusions were reached either way on GOP attendance.

However, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) indicated that his Conference is likely to participate if it receives assurances that Obama intends to negotiate in good faith. Senate Republicans remain concerned that the president has no intention of considering GOP health care proposals, but he instead might be inclined to use the nationally televised summit to burnish his bipartisan credentials and paint the GOP as obstructionists.

Obama said Tuesday during a news conference that he does not want to start the health care reform process from scratch, explaining that he wants to act on legislation quickly rather than sending a new bill through a committee process that could take six to eight months to complete. Kyl said those parameters cast doubt on the president’s motives surrounding the summit and could make bipartisan cooperation difficult.

“That kind of precondition makes it very difficult to expect to go into this with any hope of getting Republican ideas considered. Obviously we would put forth ideas that we have. The first idea we have is, that you have to do this a step at a time rather than in a comprehensive way,” Kyl said during a brief interview just off the Senate floor. “So that’s a totally different approach. And if the president is stuck on his approach, and it’s either his way or the highway, I’m not sure that the talks would produce anything. Now if he’s willing to listen, and consider our point of view, then there might be a different outcome.”

Obama has called for the summit in the hopes of jump-starting his health care reform effort, which stalled in the Senate last month after Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) victory in a special election to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) cost the Democrats their 60-vote supermajority. Prior to Brown’s victory, the Democrats were on the cusp of reconciling competing health care bills approved by the House and Senate late last year.

The possibility of Republicans declining Obama’s invitation to the health care summit surfaced after a letter from House GOP leaders to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was made public on Monday evening.

The letter from Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) suggested House Republicans were prepared to skip the meeting unless key assurances were made and a host of preconditions were met. For example, Boehner and Cantor said in the letter that they “would rightly be reluctant” to participate in the summit if Obama did not move to scrap the health care bills that the House and Senate already passed.

But a senior Republican Senate aide threw cold water on the possibility that the GOP would boycott. Congressional Republicans, this aide said, simply want to clarify the president’s goals for the meeting and ensure that it is more than a political stunt designed strictly to put them on the defensive.

“We’re obviously interested in making any summit a substantive venture rather than another stage crafted PR event for the purposes of rehabilitating the president’s ‘bipartisan’ image,” the senior Republican Senate aide said Tuesday. “Our interpretation is that we would like to establish an understanding prior to the event that if we’re going to do another summit that it be more substantive and productive than the previous attempts.”

Meanwhile, Kyl responded to Obama’s comments from Tuesday’s news conference that Republicans need to understand that bipartisanship means they must accept Democratic ideas in the final legislation. “Bipartisan can’t be that I agree to all the things that they believe in or want and they agree to none of the things that I want,” Obama told reporters.

Kyl argued that Republicans were completely shut out by the Democrats during last year’s health care debate, and he said he has never viewed bipartisanship as a scenario in which only GOP ideas are included in legislation.

“While I understand that Republicans can’t have it all our way, it’s also clear that the president can’t have it all his way,” Kyl said. “And that creates a dilemma, because you have two totally different approaches here.”