WASHINGTON – Signaling he'd meet critics part way on health care, President Barack Obama said Tuesday he's willing to sign a bill even if it doesn't deliver everything he pursued through a year of grinding effort at risk of going down as a dismal failure.
The Democrats' massive health overhaul legislation is stalled in Congress by disagreements within the party and the loss last month of their 60th Senate vote, and with it, control of the agenda. Republicans suspect that Obama's invitation to a televised health care summit Feb. 25 is a thinly disguised political trap. On Tuesday, the president tried to change the dour dynamic, indicating he could settle for less in order to move ahead.
"Let's put the best ideas on the table," Obama told reporters after meeting with congressional leaders of both parties. "My hope is that we can find enough overlap that we can say, this is the right way to move forward, even if I don't get every single thing that I want."
Obama's overarching goals are to rein in medical costs and expand coverage to millions of uninsured. Specifically, Obama said he'd be willing to work on ways to limit medical malpractice lawsuits — one of the main ideas Republicans have for reducing costs, by addressing the problem of defensive medicine. Democrats, who count trial lawyers among their most generous contributors, especially in an election year, have blocked all previous attempts to tackle the issue.
Obama's flexibility marks a contrast with the approach former President Bill Clinton took in the 1990s when his health care overhaul got bogged down in Congress. Clinton sternly waved his veto pen at lawmakers and threatened to reject any legislation that fell short of his goal of covering all Americans. The bill died, and Democrats lost control of Congress in the 1994 midterm election.
Still, Republican leaders expressed renewed skepticism about Obama's call for bipartisanship and reiterated their demand that Obama jettison the Democratic bills and start from scratch.
"It's going to be very difficult to have a bipartisan conversation with regard to a 2,700-page health care bill that the Democrat majority in the House and the Democrat majority in the Senate can't pass," said House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio. "It really is time to scrap the bill and start over." Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky echoed those sentiments, even though the White House says Obama has no plans to set the clock back to beginning.
But even Obama's fellow Democrats are expressing skepticism about what the summit can accomplish. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who shepherded the legislation through the Senate's health committee, said the GOP has had plenty of chances to offer input, and Republicans and Democrats know each others' positions so well that "this meeting could occur an hour from now."
"We could play each others' hands, that's how much familiarity we've had with this issue," Dodd said. "This idea we all don't know what the other side wants, there isn't a person left around here" who doesn't, Dodd said.
Republicans may run political risks if they just say no. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that most Americans want Congress and the president to keep working on a comprehensive health care overhaul. Two-thirds supported the goal in the survey, released Tuesday. Nearly 6 in 10 said Republicans aren't doing enough to find compromise with Obama, while more than 4 in 10 said Obama is doing too little to get GOP support.
Obama said he's not interested in starting over on health care, with five congressional committees holding new rounds of hearings and bill-drafting sessions.
"What I don't think makes sense — and I don't think the American people want to see — would be another year of partisan wrangling around these issues," he said.
But he said he's open to "starting from scratch" as long as three major goals are met: reducing costs, curbing insurance company practices such as coverage denials, and expanding coverage to millions of people who buy their own policies or work for a small employer.
"I will be open to any ideas that help promote these goals," Obama said.
If lawmakers can't overcome partisanship and policy differences and the health care bill dies as a result, Obama said the alternative is not good. He pointed to a 39 percent premium hike just announced by California's largest for-profit seller of individual health insurance policies, Anthem Blue Cross. Insurers say part of the problem is that healthy people hit by the economic downturn are dropping coverage, raising premiums for everybody else left in the pool.
"If we don't act, this is just a preview of coming attractions," Obama said. "Premiums will continue to rise for folks with insurance, millions more will lose their coverage altogether, our deficits will continue to grow larger."
Although Republicans have cast the Obama's approach as a big-government power grab, a report by government economic experts last week found that even without health care overhaul, government programs will soon be paying slightly more than half the nation's health care tab. The reason? Private insurance coverage is shrinking because of the economy, while Medicare and Medicaid are growing.
Some Republican activists worry that the summit is designed to portray their health care proposals as thin. A shaky GOP showing could embolden congressional Democrats to make a final, aggressive push to overhaul health care, with or without any Republican votes.
The House's top two Republican leaders have openly questioned Obama's sincerity and hinted they might skip the meeting.
Others in the GOP sounded more positive. "It could be a serious, constructive endeavor and hopefully it will be," moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said Tuesday. "Before Christmas I recommended to the president taking ... time out and regrouping for a broader bipartisan group to see what could be achievable in developing a consensus on some modest, practical proposals."
Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Erica Werner contributed to this report.