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Editorial: Go to Camp David

We’d love to believe that the bipartisan health care summit slated for Thursday actually will lead to a bipartisan bargaining process and to bipartisan reform of the nation’s costly, inequitable health care system.

But we doubt that any such thing will happen. What appears to be shaping up is a piece of political theater in which President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats on one side, and Republicans on the other, posture for the cameras, try to make the other side appear uncooperative and set the stage for using health care reform as a 2010 campaign issue.

If that’s what occurs, Democrats will use the session to justify trying to push health reform through Congress on a party-line basis using the budget reconciliation process in order to avoid the need to secure 60 votes in the Senate. They’ll argue that obstructionist Republicans made it necessary.

And Republicans will denounce the process as an unfair power play resorted to as the only means by which Democrats could force their unpopular plans on the public and avoid the spectacle of failing to pass Obama’s signature initiative through an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress.

Proponents of using reconciliation correctly argue that, even though the procedure was originally designed to make it possible to pass deficit-reduction measures, it has been used by both parties to pass “policy” legislation, including welfare reform in the Clinton administration and President George W. Bush’s huge tax cuts.

That said, it will do nothing for the climate of distrust toward Washington for Democrats to use this budget device to transform one-sixth of the U.S. economy on a partisan basis, especially when a majority of voters disapprove of the plan.

The indications that Thursday’s gathering will not lead to serious bipartisan bargaining begin with the manner of Obama’s invitation. It was not extended in private phone calls to Republican leaders, but in an interview with CBS’ Katie Couric just before the Super Bowl.

Moreover, the event has not been set up as a true negotiation. For one thing, it’s on live TV. The history of serious negotiations is that they occur at the presidential retreat, Camp David, or at Andrews Air Force Base — with the doors closed so that trade-offs can be discussed with candor.

As journalists, we habitually demand openness, because that is the nature of our business — and a big part of our responsibility to the public. We complained that Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) efforts to fashion a final Senate bill were conducted in secret sessions with two Democratic committee chairmen and White House adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle. Yet we also know that private talks between well-meaning leaders are often the best route to substantive breakthroughs, so what we objected to in our editorial (“Behind Closed Doors,” Oct. 21) was “the lack of diversity in shaping the final product” with “no Republicans in the room.”

We’d love to be proved wrong Thursday. We’d love to see Obama and other Democrats not bat down GOP ideas, but take them seriously. And we’d love to see Republicans not declare at the outset, “Mr. President, start over.”

We’d love to see some moves toward accommodation take place in public and conclude with an agreement to move to serious negotiations at Camp David. We’re not the only ones who’d love it. A majority of voters would, too.

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