Yesterday, in a surprise move to many (though apparently not to Majority Leader Reid or Speaker Pelosi, who immediately issued statements of support) President Obama invited Congressional leaders from both parties to a televised half-day health care reform summit on February 25.

The summit appears to be a major effort by the administration to redirect the debate over reform.  With the main health reform storyline focusing on the food fight between the House and Senate over who doesn’t trust whom and who needs to Go First,  it’s no wonder Congressional leadership embraced the new direction.  A summit several weeks in the future gives them more time to work through their differences free from the daily white smoke watch.

The summit will also gives the administration an opportunity to highlight the many positive aspects of reform and to point out weaknesses and inconsistencies in Republican arguments.  (For example, how can Republicans attack health reform for reducing Medicare spending when their own proposal includes a far more draconian cut?) We saw versions of this dialogue when Obama engaged in a give and take at the Congressional Republican retreat a few weeks back.  Obama and Congressional Democrats can repudiate certain controversial provisions, such as the special Medicaid subsidy for Nebraska. The setting–live TV–directly answers the public’s concern about secret negotiations with a much more open and transparent discussion.

As was true at the Republican Congressional retreat, there is very little chance of substantive changes in position from either side.  Republicans believe they are winning the debate on health reform and so have little reason to shift gears as the election approaches.  And even if the Republicans were willing and the administration were tempted to cut a deal, it seems likely that any significant shift to the right would cost the administration more in Democrats’ support than it could ever pick up from Republicans, especially in the House.

The main downside risk is that the summit delays the timetable for enacting reform by several weeks, and possibly longer, if discussion continues beyond the initial meeting.  Getting a fix-it bill through reconciliation is not a fast or simple procedure, and budget rules make it harder as time goes on.  As the days of the Congressional session slip away and elections approach, a crowded Congressional calendar and an aversion to taking tough votes right before facing the voters will add to the difficulty of getting reform done. But with health reform failing to command majority support from the public,  who lacks understanding of the bill and has concerns about the process, what’s there to lose?

Eyes on the prize

In the midst of all the political calculations and positioning, it is more important than ever to reassert how crucial covering the uninsured, slowing the growth of health care costs, improving the quality of care and ending abusive insurance industry practices is to our nation’s health and financial well-being.

Ultimately, this is not about Democrats or Republicans.  It’s not about achieving electoral advantage.  It’s about finally tackling one of the toughest social problems that confronts our country–one whose resolution has eluded policymakers for too many years.  It’s time to get reform done.

–Michael Miller, director of strategic policy