WASHINGTON — President Obama moved to jump-start the stalled health care debate Sunday, inviting Republicans in Congress to participate in a bipartisan, half-day televised summit on the subject this month.
Obama challenged Republicans, who have been largely unified in opposing his proposals, to bring their best ideas for how to cover more Americans and fix the health-insurance system to the public discussion.
The move came amid widespread complaints that efforts so far by him and his Democratic allies in Congress have been too partisan and secretive.
The Feb. 25 meeting's prospects for success are far from clear. GOP leaders demanded Sunday that Democrats start from scratch, and White House aides said Obama had no plans to do so.
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"If we are to reach a bipartisan consensus, the White House can start by shelving the current health spending bill," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio also threw some jabs while accepting Obama's invitation. He said he was glad the White House "finally seems interested in a real, bipartisan conversation," adding that Americans have rejected "the job-killing, trillion-dollar government takeover of health care bills passed by the House and Senate."
Obama told CBS's Katie Couric that he and the leaders of both parties will "go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward."
Asked if he was willing to start from square one, the president said he wants "to look at the Republican ideas that are out there. And I want to be very specific. 'How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance markets so people with preexisting conditions, for example, can get health care?' "
"If we can go step by step through a series of these issues and arrive at some agreements," Obama said, "then procedurally, there's no reason why we can't do it a lot faster than the
process took last year."
Congress's Democratic and Republican leaders have differed sharply on most major questions in the long-running health care debate. Only one Republican voted for the House health care bill approved in December, and no Republicans voted for a similar Senate version.
White House officials said Sunday that Obama does not intend to restart the health care legislative process from scratch. Many liberal groups and lawmakers want congressional Democrats to use all the parliamentary muscle they have to enact the measure that the Senate passed on Christmas Eve, employing rules that could bypass GOP filibusters to make changes demanded by House Democrats.
The White House has not ruled out such a strategy. But Obama's recent talk of inviting Republican input and extending the debate for several weeks has caused uncertainty about his plans.
A White House statement Sunday said Obama repeatedly has made it clear "that he's adamant about passing comprehensive reform similar to the bills passed by the House and the Senate."
"He hopes to have Republican support in doing so, but he is going to move forward on health reform," the statement said.
Polls show that many Americans feel Obama and his congressional allies have not sought enough GOP input, although Democrats say Republicans have shown virtually no interest in seeking a realistic agreement.
Obama has shown a greater zeal lately for interacting with Republicans. His sharp but civil exchange with House Republicans earlier this month drew widespread praise and attention.
Obama also is trying to address criticism of Democrats' closed-door negotiations that led to special accommodations for Nebraska and Louisiana senators when their votes on health care were in question. Some Republicans taunted Obama for suggesting earlier that health care negotiations should be aired on C-SPAN, and one GOP senator said health care would be the president's Waterloo.
Obama said the closed-door deal-cutting was not helpful to the process.