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Hill Looks Past Health Summit

Fast-forward to Friday.

President Barack Obama’s bipartisan health care summit may take place today, but the defining moment will come the day after, when Democrats decide once and for all whether to go it alone to pass a bill.

“What’s on the table by Friday morning will be different than what’s there today,” Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) said. “We’re keeping an open mind. There’s no need to make a decision yet” on how to proceed with Obama’s plan.

“I don’t know what expectations to have, honestly. I hope it will be constructive,” said Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), a summit attendee. Conrad emphasized that cost-containment has to be “an important part of whatever advances.”

More than anything, House and Senate Democratic leaders are pinning their hopes on Obama to do what he does best: deliver a powerful presentation that inspires them to get on board with what many are viewing as their last shot at passing health care reform. After a year of trying to get a bill to Obama’s desk, Democrats have struggled to unify around a proposal and along the way failed to attract GOP support. Obama finally intervened earlier this week when he came out with a proposal of his own: a $950 billion plan that reflects the Senate’s health care plan that was passed late last year.

House Democratic leaders — although they’ve privately been marketing it — have publicly said they are giving Obama a chance to sell his plan before they try to rally their Caucus behind it. But most believe Obama’s blueprint, or something close to it, will be the package that finally breaks through and becomes law.

“I’m not doing any whipping now on proposals. I’m waiting on legislation to start my whipping process,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said Wednesday on MSNBC.

Some Democrats are already showing that they need more convincing to get behind Obama’s plan.

“I hope it’s not just a bunch of partisan rhetoric,” Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), a fiscally conservative Blue Dog leader who voted against the House-passed health care bill last November, said of the summit.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who also opposed the $1.2 trillion House bill, said Obama’s plan “starts with a wholly unacceptable Senate health care bill and, with a few exceptions, continues to make it worse. It’s a much better bill for insurance company investors than it is for the American people.” Obama’s blueprint was built off the Senate’s $871 billion bill; it doesn’t contain a public insurance option and includes a controversial tax on high-cost health insurance plans.

Republicans, meanwhile, are heading into the summit ready to dismiss Obama’s proposal as a government takeover of health care and with skepticism about the president’s talk of crafting a final bill together. Republicans have been asking Obama to start anew and have questioned Obama’s motives for holding the summit in the first place.

“I’m hoping to find [bipartisanship], but with the president coming out with his whole plan on Monday, just three days before he said he wanted Republican input, it makes me wonder,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), a physician, who will also be at the summit.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), also a doctor, said he didn’t want to share his expectations for the summit. “It’s not about policy, though; it’s about politics,” he said.

But a Democratic source with knowledge of Obama’s plans on health care countered: “I guarantee you the president is very interested in what Republicans have to say.”

The White House has refused to give any details on its post-summit strategy, a stance that has fueled speculation that Obama may be ready to play hardball and lean on filibuster-busting reconciliation rules to push his plan through the Senate without Republicans.

And while many Democrats have privately said the strategy is very much in play, Democratic Hill aides played coy Wednesday on whether there was any plan in the works to pursue a partisan tack. “It’s the president’s move,” one senior aide said.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Monday described reconciliation as “a legislative vehicle that has been used on a number of occasions over the past many years” and that “the avenue exists if one wants to pursue it.” Moments later, he said Obama “believes there ought to be an up-or-down vote on health care.”

Still, Gibbs was dodging questions Tuesday about Obama’s strategy for passing health care reform into law.

“The president is not focused on Friday. The president ultimately is focused on Thursday,” Gibbs said. Pressed on whether Obama is optimistic that the health care debate will be in a different place after the summit, Gibbs said, “Hopefully Thursday afternoon.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned that talk of reconciliation is clouding the purpose of the bipartisan meeting.

“If the White House wants real bipartisanship, then it needs to drop the proposal it posted yesterday. … And they need to take this last-ditch reconciliation effort off the table once and for all,” McConnell said.

Obama will likely throw a few bones to Republicans today by publicly backing some of their favorite proposals — namely, medical malpractice reform — in an effort to show that he remains receptive to bipartisan ideas. But GOP aides said such a strategy won’t stop them from criticizing Obama’s health care plan.

“If he’s praising tort reform, his problem will be House and Senate Democrats, not Republicans,” one GOP leadership aide said.

Obama invited a host of Congressional leaders to take part in the six-hour meeting, which kicks off at 10 a.m. at the Blair House. The meeting will center on four topics — cost control, insurance reforms, deficit reduction and expanded coverage — with Obama, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Vice President Joseph Biden taking turns introducing each topic.

Obama is scheduled to attend the entire meeting — a significant amount of time for the administration to clear. Obama will kick off the meeting with opening remarks, which will be followed by comments from Congressional leaders, and he will lead discussions on the first and last of the four mini-forums on tap.

House Democratic participants include Clyburn, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), and Reps. Charlie Rangel (N.Y.), George Miller (Calif.), Henry Waxman (Calif.) and John Dingell (Mich.). Republicans include Boehner, Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) and Reps. Dave Camp (Mich.), Joe Barton (Texas) and John Kline (Minn.).

Senate Democratic participants include Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Tom Harkin (Iowa). Republicans include McConnell, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).

In addition, House and Senate leaders from both parties were each allowed to bring four lawmakers to represent their chamber.

House representatives include Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), Robert Andrews (D-N.J.), Charles Boustany (R-La.), Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Peter Roskam (R-Ill.). Senate representatives include Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Conrad and Barrasso.

Both parties are already promoting their off-site coverage of the event. Organizing for America will live-stream the meeting and provide updates on key moments during the meeting. Boehner, meanwhile, has organized a 17-Member “truth squad” that will stay behind to fact-check Democratic statements and promote Republican ideas.

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