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Republicans Quick to Pan Obama Health Care Plan

Congressional Republicans on Monday flatly rejected President Barack Obama’s $950 billion health care package, all but ensuring that the president’s summit on the issue scheduled for later this week will fail to end the partisan stalemate over reform.

The GOP’s position is not surprising given the party has been cool to the Democratic proposals so far, and no Republican voted in favor of the Senate-passed health care bill that Obama’s proposal was modeled after. What’s more, the Obama plan is $79 billion more expensive than the $871 billion Senate plan. Republicans, however, say they plan to attend Obama’s nationally televised health care forum Thursday at the Blair House.

But the event is likely to amount to little more than a political show with both sides jockeying for advantage with the November 2010 midterm electorate. House and Senate Republican leaders are coordinating their pre-summit strategy, although the details are still being worked out. It remains unclear what potential counterproposals GOP lawmakers may offer beyond their intention to push for incremental reforms and smaller, less costly bills.

“I think it creates an atmosphere that is not constructive to having a dialogue that can actually make progress,” Budget ranking member Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said when asked how Obama’s latest health care bill would affect the summit.

Gregg, who nearly joined Obama’s Cabinet a year ago as Commerce secretary and agrees with the president’s assertion that health care reform is badly needed, said the administration’s package is worse than the Senate legislation and just as bad as the $1.2 trillion House bill. Gregg has previously expressed a desire to attend Obama’s summit.

“It looks like more of the same to me. It’s déjà vu all over again,” he said. “This is the road to Europeanizing health care in the United States.”

Gregg, who recently collaborated with Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) on a failed attempt to create a commission to rein in deficit spending, appeared as strident as other GOP leaders in his opposition Monday to Obama’s health care bill — and equally dismissive of the bipartisan summit.

Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price (Ga.), a leader of House conservatives, said the summit was looking “more and more like a photo op.” If Obama refuses to take reconciliation off the table, the American people will know the event was nothing but political theater, added Price, a doctor.

The White House has called its bill a starting point for Thursday’s summit and invited Republicans to counter with their own large-scale proposal. Congressional Democrats have long contended their legislation’s inclusion of GOP ideas proves the Republicans are obstructing for partisan gain.

It appears Obama missed the mark if his goal was to draft a bill that could attract bipartisan support and dismantle the GOP filibuster that has prevented Democrats from passing a merged version of the House and Senate health care bills.

Knowledgeable Republican Senate aides said Monday their Conference was holding strong in its opposition to the president’s plan. House Republicans, an even tougher sell, also stood firm in rejecting it.

But the GOP believes the president is dismissing their ideas simply by insisting that Congress enact a comprehensive package. A senior GOP Senate aide said Monday that House and Senate Republicans would present a unified front at the summit and suggested they would counter Obama’s bill with joint proposals that were incremental in nature.

“We have unified strategy,” the senior GOP Senate aide said. “House and Senate leadership have been in constant consultation on health care, and that includes this week’s summit.”

A Republican operative who works downtown said GOP leaders are still working out the details of their pre-summit strategy. But he said they are firm on at least one aspect of their approach, and it’s not likely to go over well with the president.

“Republicans will continue to focus on [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell’s [R-Ky.] message, which is that they want incremental reform, not a huge, comprehensive bill,” this GOP operative said. “Thus, despite Obama’s request that the Republicans propose ‘their plan,’ there won’t be any paper forthcoming.”

Some Republicans view Obama’s summit as a trap, a belief that was strengthened with the release of the administration’s health care bill. GOP Senators point to the fact that the $950 billion cost of the plan is a White House estimate, and the fact that there is no legislative language available for the Congressional Budget Office to score separately.

After Obama announced plans to hold the Thursday event, Republicans held out a slim hope that the president — in response to the public polling and Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-Mass.) special election victory — would start the process from scratch.

The administration’s decision to retrench on its original approach has left Republicans wary, fearing Obama would use the summit to paint them as unreasonable obstructionists, after which they expect him to push for Democrats to use reconciliation rules to sidestep the GOP filibuster.

Still, Republicans still plan to attend, seeing a boycott of the summit as even more politically perilous. Meanwhile, Democratic Senate staff has been quietly working on a 51-vote reconciliation bill in the runup to the summit.

“I take the president at his word that he’s having the health care summit this week because he wants to have an open, productive exchange of ideas. It’s confusing, though, that today the president said he wants a bill that’s a just new version of two highly partisan bills that the grass roots rejected last year,” Senate Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said. “Plus, Democratic leaders in Congress are preparing a partisan budget reconciliation plan to ram the legislation through.”

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.

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