Obama health summit sets up a showdown

President Obama’s call for a televised bipartisan meeting to discuss stalled healthcare legislation comes as his party unfolds a strategy to force Republicans to put policy ideas on the table that Democrats believe they can exploit in the fall elections.

After a year of suffering GOP attacks on the president’s plans for healthcare and the economy, the White House and congressional Democrats are gambling that voters will find Republican ideas to be even more unpopular.

For example, Obama’s call for a meeting, which he announced to a national television audience before Sunday’s Super Bowl, reflects the belief in Democratic circles that most provisions of the party’s healthcare bill remain popular and will stand up well against GOP ideas.

The Democratic strategy goes beyond healthcare. In recent days, Democrats on Capitol Hill have pounced on a long-term budget blueprint by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) that would aim to eliminate the federal deficit by, among other things, partly privatizing Social Security and converting Medicare into a voucher program.

Ryan is a rising leader of young, conservative House members, but House Republican leaders have not endorsed his plan.

Still, two prominent House Democrats, Reps. John B. Larson of Connecticut and Linda T. Sanchez of Lakewood, are sponsoring a resolution that attempts to force Republicans to vote on whether they support privatizing the federal Social Security program, an idea that proved unpopular when President George W. Bush tried to enact it in his second term.

“It’s a great opportunity for the American people to see the stark differences between the priorities of Democrats who are trying to strengthen Social Security for years to come and Republicans who are trying to tear it down,” said an aide to a senior House Democrat who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record.

Ryan denounced the resolution in an interview Monday, saying that Democrats are encouraging Republicans to offer ideas only to then discredit them.

“It’s very cynical,” he said. “This is why people in Congress don’t offer solutions to the big problems of the day.”

The office of House Republican leader John A. Boehner of Ohio also criticized the resolution. “The Democrats have the largest majorities in decades in the House and the Senate, and they control the White House, but their agenda is stalled. So, they’re now pursuing a strategy as if this was 2006 and President Bush is in the White House, scaring seniors on Social Security and Medicare,” said spokesman Michael Steel.

Last month, White House senior advisor David Axelrod laid out a campaign strategy aimed at preventing the fall elections from becoming a referendum on Obama’s performance, and framing them instead as a choice between parties that want to take the country in vastly different directions.

During Obama’s televised question-and-answer session with House Republicans Jan. 29, the president invited Republican ideas but said that he reserved the right to reject those that he found unworkable.

“I am absolutely committed to working with you on these issues,” Obama said. “But it can’t just be political assertions that aren’t substantiated when it comes to the actual details of policy, because otherwise we’re going to be selling the American people a bill of goods.”

The White House insists that the healthcare summit, to be held Feb. 25 and televised on C-SPAN, is a good-faith effort to bridge a divide between Democrats and Republicans.

“It’s not intended to be theater,” one White House official said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record. “We keep hearing from people, ‘We have ideas.’ We want to hear them.”

But Ryan and other leading Republicans were suspicious of Obama’s outreach, saying Monday that the White House appeared intent on preserving much of the overhaul bills passed by the House and Senate.

“We hear the soothing rhetoric, but what we see is the same scary substance,” said Ryan, who has offered his own healthcare plan. He called on the White House to start over on a new bill with GOP input.

“If they really want bipartisanship, then they have to collaborate,” Ryan said.

GOP strategist Frank Luntz, who wrote an influential memo last year laying out ways for Republicans to fight the Democratic healthcare campaign, said both Obama and congressional Republicans will have to lay claim to the political center at the summit.

“If Republicans look like they are obstructing healthcare, they lose,” he said.

But he added that the summit also gives the GOP an opportunity to build support for an agenda that counters the White House. “This gives them their chance to push medical malpractice reform, which the public desperately wants.”

For their part, many Democrats believe that they will be able to cast Republicans as obstacles to the Democratic agenda of expanding health coverage and protecting consumers from insurance companies.

A recent survey by the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 7 in 10 Americans would back a healthcare bill if it included tax credits for small businesses. And at least 6 in 10 would back legislation that expanded the Medicaid program for the poor, helped seniors on Medicare buy prescription drugs or guaranteed that all Americans could get insurance even if they were sick.

But large segments of the public do not know that these provisions are in the House or Senate bills, according to the Kaiser poll.

Peter Nicholas in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.