That highly touted bit of political theater — the health care “summit” — is on. At the end of the day, we’ll know how well the GOP fared in the theatrics by how much attention the commentators on Fox News give it. Fox didn’t air much of last month’s Q&A between Obama and House Republicans — a sign that the GOP-leaning network thought the prez did better than Republicans.
The starting point in the debate is this: Mr. Obama and the Democrats argue that comprehensive legislation is needed to provide nearly universal health insurance coverage; Congressional Republicans say the nation cannot afford to broadly expand coverage and should work incrementally to control costs.
In recent days, each side has sought to build strategic advantage.
Mr. Obama released his own legislative proposal, built largely on the bill adopted by the Senate on Dec. 24 but also incorporating a number of changes designed to appeal to House Democrats. At the same time, the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats have taken aim at the insurance industry, highlighting huge premium increases proposed by Anthem Blue Cross in California. The House also adopted a standalone measure to repeal the exemption from federal antitrust laws that the insurance industry has enjoyed since 1945.
The Republicans, in turn, have sought to portray the forum as “political theater” and have insisted that Mr. Obama’s proposal shows that Democrats have already prejudged the outcome of today’s debate and that they have no intention of fundamentally altering course.
Republicans, including the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the House leader, Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, have called on Mr. Obama to discard the plan unveiled on Monday, as well as the bills adopted by the House and Senate late last year, and to start over.
The Republicans rejected a challenge by the White House that they produce a unified, comprehensive plan. Instead, they are focusing on a handful of steps that were included in a House Republican bill that was offered in November and easily defeated.
Among the Republican proposals: allowing small businesses to band together to purchase insurance at lower costs; permitting the sale of insurance policies across state lines; expanding state high-risk pools to offer coverage to people who otherwise cannot obtain it; and limiting medical malpractice lawsuits with caps on damage awards.
The Democrats will seek to portray the two sides as largely in agreement in the broadest issues in the debate: the need to slow the growth in health care costs; to cover the uninsured; to improve Medicare and Medicaid; and to promote wellness programs and preventive care.
But in terms of addressing those shared concerns, the two sides are oceans apart. Republicans are unwilling even to consider some ideas that they have championed in the past because they say the nation cannot afford the changes now.
The acrimony was evident Wednesday on the House floor, when Representative Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York, criticized Republicans for opposing the repeal of the antitrust exemption for insurers, shouting, “The Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.” Enraged Republicans demanded that he withdraw his remarks and accused him of violating the rules of the House.
Mr. Weiner then asked for unanimous consent to withdraw and substitute his remarks, which the Republicans granted. Mr. Weiner then thundered: “Every single Republican I know is a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.” He ultimately did withdraw the comments.
If the two sides could put aside the political imperatives of the moment — which they seem unable to do — the forum could focus on any number of critical policy questions that experts, including health care economists and leaders in the heath care industry, say could improve the legislation.
Experts generally agree that the Democrats’ legislation, while making a substantial start, still does not do enough to reduce health care costs for all Americans, especially the majority of people who already have insurance through their employers. Executives of some of the nation’s top hospitals say the legislation could still do more to encourage wellness programs and preventive care, especially when it comes to combating obesity.