By Michael D. Shear
President Obama made a dramatic attempt to jump-start the stalled health care debate Sunday, inviting Republicans in Congress to a half-day summit on the subject to be televised live later this month.
The president made the offer in an interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric just hours before the Superbowl. Obama challenged Republicans to come to the discussion armed with their best ideas for how to cover more Americans and fix the health insurance system.
"I want to consult closely with our Republican colleagues," Obama told Couric. "What I want to do is to ask them to put their ideas on the table... I want to come back and have a large meeting, Republicans and Democrats to go through, systematically, all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward."
The invitation to join him later this month follows comments he made on Thursday during a speech at a Democratic fundraiser in which he said he wanted to sit with Republicans and "walk through the [health care plans] in a methodical way so that the American people can see and compare what makes the most sense."
It also comes just weeks after the president received high marks for engaging the House Republicans in a televised, 90-minute discussion at their retreat in Baltimore. The president has been hammered by critics who said his year-long push to revamp the health care system did not live up to his campaign promise to conduct the debate in the open.
Democratic efforts to push a final health bill through the Congress fell apart last month when the party lost their 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. The newly-elected Republican senator from Massachusetts, Scott Brown, campaigned against what he called the Democratic party's government takeover of the health-care system.
The president's proposed half-day summit, which aides said could take place at the historic Blair House across the street from the White House, represents an effort by Obama to hit the reset button on the top domestic priority of his first year in office.
And it is a recognition that he must now have at least some Republican support to get it passed.
In a statement, House Republican leader John Boehner said that he is looking forward to the discussion and is "pleased that the White House finally seems interested in a real, bipartisan conversation on health care. The American people have overwhelmingly rejected both of the job-killing trillion-dollar government takeover of health care bills passed by the House and Senate. The problem with the Democrats' health care bills is not that the American people don't understand them; the American people do understand them, and they don't like them."
Boehner added that "The best way to start on real, bipartisan reform would be to scrap those bills and focus on the kind of step-by-step improvements that will lower health care costs and expand access."
But aides said that Obama does not plan to scrap months of legislative effort on the issue. Democratic leaders have continued to work quietly to reconcile House and Senate versions that passed last year, and the president plans to come to the summit armed with a Democratic bill, aides said.
"This is not starting over," one White House official said. "Don't make any mistake about that. We are coming with our plan. They can bring their plan."
The official added: "What the President will not do is let this moment slip away. He hopes to have Republican support in doing so - but he is going to move forward on health reform."
That declaration could help reassure Democrats who have expressed concern that Obama was essentially abandoning the health reform effort in favor of a new focus on the economy and jobs.
The White House has played down the health care subject since Brown's election to fill the seat vacated by the late Edward M. Kennedy. Obama made only a brief mention of the issue during his State of the Union speech last month. In the speech to the DNC last week, he urged patience, saying, "I think we should be very deliberate, take our time."By Post Editor | February 7, 2010; 4:45 PM ET