WASHINGTON — President Obama's call for a televised meeting with Republicans to discuss his stalled health care legislation comes as his party unfolds a strategy aimed at forcing the GOP to put policy ideas on the table that Democrats believe they can exploit in the fall elections.
After a year of suffering Republican attacks on the president's plans for health care and the economy, the White House and congressional Democrats are gambling that voters will find Republican policy ideas to be even more unpopular than the Democratic plans.
For example, Obama's call for a bipartisan meeting on the health bill, which he announced to a huge television audience before Sunday's Super Bowl, reflects the belief in Democratic circles that most provisions of the party's health care bill remain popular, though some polls suggest otherwise.
The Democratic strategy goes beyond health care. In recent days, Democrats on Capitol Hill have pounced on a long-term budget blueprint written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would aim to eliminate the federal budget deficit by, among other things, partially privatizing Social Security and converting Medicare into a voucher program.
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Ryan is a rising leader of young and conservative House members, but House Republican leaders have not endorsed his plan. Still, two prominent House Democrats, Reps. John Larson of Connecticut and Linda Sanchez of California, are sponsoring a resolution that attempts to force Republicans to vote on whether they support privatizing Social Security rather than keeping it a federal entitlement program.
Partially privatizing the federal retirement program proved unpopular when former President George W. Bush tried to enact the idea 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 a senior House Democratic leadership aide.
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 Boehner, R-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," said Michael Steel, a Boehner spokesman. "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."
The White House insists that the health care summit, to be held Feb. 25 and televised on C-SPAN, is a good-faith effort to bridge a cavernous divide between Democrats and Republicans on a health care overhaul.
"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."
"If they really want bipartisanship, then they have to collaborate," Ryan said.