WASHINGTON — Coming soon to daytime television: America's long-running civic drama over how to provide better health care to more of its people without breaking the bank.
President Obama summons anxious Democrats and aloof Republicans to a White House summit Thursday — live on C-SPAN and perhaps cable — and gambles that he can save his embattled health care overhaul by the power of persuasion. Adversaries and allies alike were surprised by Obama's invitation to reason together at an open forum.
Ahead of the meeting, the White House will post on its Web site a health care plan that modifies the bill passed by Senate Democrats last year. The modification is an effort to address the concerns of their House counterparts.
The plan is important, but not as critical as the political skill Obama can apply to an impasse that seems close to hopeless in a congressional election year.
"It's a high-stakes situation for him more than anybody else," said Gerald Shea, health care adviser for the AFL-CIO.
Here's a viewer's guide to the White House meeting, looking at Obama and his plan, Republicans in Congress and divided Democrats:
He has two main goals. One is to show the American people that the Democrats' health care plan is reasonable, and much of its complexity reflects the sprawling nature of the insurance system. The other is to argue that lockstep Republican opposition is not reasonable and could spoil a historic opportunity on a problem that concerns all Americans.
"I don't want to see this meeting turn into political theater, with each side simply reciting talking points and trying to score political points," the president said Saturday in his radio and Internet address. "What's being tested here is not just our ability to solve this one problem, but our ability to solve any problem."
GOP leaders in the House and Senate say they cannot accept the Democratic bills, and they want to start over to shape narrower legislation that cuts costs for small businesses and uses federal dollars to set up special insurance pools for people with medical problems.
Republicans want to place limits on medical malpractice judgments, an approach the Congressional Budget Office says would save money by reducing defensive medicine. Obama has toyed with the idea, saying he agrees that something should be done, but thinks limits on jury awards go too far.
Some Republican leaders have questioned whether there's any reason to go to the summit, but a boycott would play into Obama's hands.
Before Republican Scott Brown pulled off a Senate upset in Massachusetts to claim the seat long held by Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, Democrats were within reach of passing a health care overhaul their party pursued for more than a half-century.
They no longer have the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican delaying tactics in the Senate, but they still control both chambers. Yet passing anything but a very modest bill would likely mean using special budget rules that let Democrats override Republicans in the Senate with a simple majority. Using the budget route — called reconciliation — to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills probably would enrage Republicans.
That means Democrats will have to stick their necks out, and some may lose their seats this fall if they support an all-or-nothing push on health care.