"More talk, no deal" was The Wall Street Journal's headline on Thursday's Blair House health care summit. "After summit flop, Democrats prepare to go it alone on Obamacare," proclaimed the headline here at The Washington Examiner. These were appropriate verdicts if you viewed the summit as an attempt to reach bipartisan agreement or even a limited consensus.
But that of course was not why Barack Obama convened this unique colloquy. He did so as part of an attempt to pass some Democratic health care bill, somehow, through both houses of Congress -- and to discredit the Republicans who opposed the bills passed by the House in November and the Senate in December.
In that he seems to have failed. The Atlantic's Clive Crook, who supports the Democratic bills, concluded that "the Republicans did not come across as the party of no. They looked well-informed, pragmatic and engaged in the discussion. It was the Democrats who leaned more heavily on talking points, and seemed evasive and unspecific."
Kevin Drum, blogging for the left-wing Mother Jones, agreed. "My take is that the summit was basically a draw, but with a slight edge to the Republicans. They didn't have to win, after all. They just had to seem non-insane, and for the most part they did. What's more, Obama missed a chance to provide a punchy 60-second sales pitch for the Democratic plan."
Obama and the Democrats face problems with both public opinion -- their bills are hugely unpopular -- and with legislative procedure. The problem with public opinion has been undeniable since Republican Sen. Scott Brown's victory five weeks ago in Massachusetts. The problem with legislative procedure is more complex.
Democrats could theoretically solve that problem by having the House pass the Senate bill in toto, ready for Obama's signature. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has proved herself a fine vote-counter, doesn't have the votes. Last month, she said "unease would be the gentlest word" to describe House Democrats' resistance. They understandably don't want to cast votes for the Senate's Cornhusker Kickback and Louisiana Purchase.
In November, Pelosi had 220 votes for the House bill. The one Republican is now a no, one Democrat has died, one resigned last month, and another turned in his resignation Friday. That leaves her with 216, one less than the 217 she needs.
There is another problem. The Senate bill lacks the amendment sponsored by House Democrat Bart Stupak banning abortion coverage, and Stupak says that he and about 10 other Democrats will accordingly vote no. That leaves Pelosi around 205. She may have commitments from former no voters to switch to yes (especially from three who've announced they're retiring), but she doesn't have more than 10 other votes in her pocket -- or she wouldn't have accepted the Stupak amendment.
So the House wants the Senate to go first and pass changes to its bill through the reconciliation process that requires 51 rather than 60 votes. But Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad says that you can't use reconciliation on a bill that hasn't already become law. And reconciliation is probably not available on abortion issues.
All of which reminds me of Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens' attempt to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2005. Stevens got it in the reconciliation process in the Senate, where it had 51 but not 60 votes. But House Republicans couldn't get it into reconciliation, even though a majority of House members were for it. The Senate could pass it by reconciliation but not regular order; the House could pass it by regular order but not reconciliation. Result: It never passed.
There are two differences here. ANWR drilling would have little effect on most Americans. The health care bill would affect almost everybody -- by raising taxes, cutting Medicare spending, abolishing current insurance -- as Republicans pointed out in Blair House.
The second difference is that ANWR drilling was reasonably popular with the public, and there were majorities in both houses for it. Neither is true of the Democrats' health care bills today.
Last month, we were told that Obama would switch his focus from health care to jobs. But Democrats have spent February and seem about to spend March focusing on health care. It's hard to see how they can navigate the legislative process successfully -- and even harder to see how they turn around public opinion. Summit flop indeed.