A new route to the same destination?

A NEW ROUTE TO THE SAME DESTINATION?…. Most observers of the health care reform debate thought they saw the road ahead: House would pass the Senate bill, and the Senate would approve improvements through reconciliation. Yesterday, President Obama announced he’s taking a detour, which may or may not reach the same destination.

President Obama said Sunday that he would convene a half-day bipartisan health care session at the White House to be televised live this month, a high-profile gambit that will allow Americans to watch as Democrats and Republicans try to break their political impasse.

Mr. Obama made the announcement in an interview on CBS during the Super Bowl pre-game show, capitalizing on a vast television audience. He set out a plan that would put Republicans on the spot to offer their own ideas on health care and show whether both sides are willing to work together.

“I want to come back and have a large meeting, Republicans and Democrats, to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and move it forward,” Mr. Obama said in the interview from the White House Library.

The president previewed the kind of questions he’ll encourage GOP leaders to answer at the Feb. 25 meeting: “How do you guys want to lower costs? How do you guys intend to reform the insurance market so that people with pre-existing conditions, for example, can get health care? How do you want to make sure that the 30 million people who don’t have health insurance can get it? What are your ideas specifically?”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) both accepted the invitation, though they said they’d like to see the reform discussions start from scratch, with the existing proposal thrown out altogether. The president said that’s not an option, and that the talks will be focused on considering improvements to the work that’s already been done. “This is not starting over,” one White House official said. “Don’t make any mistake about that. We are coming with our plan. They can bring their plan.”

It is, by some appearances, a call-the-bluff moment, with the president daring Republicans to put their cards on the table. There will be a big, detailed policy discussion, aired on C-SPAN for all the world to see, and GOP solutions will be considered, scrutinized, and weighed against Democratic proposals.

The approach is not without risk. The public’s appetite for a prolonged health reform debate may be limited, and it’s extremely likely that Republicans will simply continue to reject any Democratic idea, regardless of merit, leading to a summit that brings us right back to where we are now.

But that wouldn’t necessarily be an awful outcome.

The summit in two weeks appears to be part of a larger political strategy, intended to provide cover for lawmakers and assuage public fears about nefarious back-room deals. Democrats want to be able to say, “We reached out to Republicans, considered their ideas in good faith, and put the whole thing on television in an open and transparent way.” The summit may make it easier, especially for some wavering Dems, to move forward without GOP support. “We gave bipartisanship our best shot,” they’ll say.

Whether one thinks this is wise or not, the planned summit is also a reminder that … reform isn’t dead. On the contrary, President Obama is taking on added responsibilities about moving this process closer to the end game.

We’ll have more on this as the summit approaches, but one of the keys to keep in mind here is who’s setting the agenda. In other words, participants will be seeking answers to questions the White House selects in advance. The president will start with the end game — coverage for 30 million uninsured Americans, consumer protections, deficit reduction — and challenge lawmakers to present ideas to successfully reach these goals.

The White House seems to believe a) Republican ideas will look worse when evaluated closely; b) Democratic ideas will look much better when scrutinized; and c) when it comes to addressing the agreed-upon questions, the way forward will appear much clearer. Subjecting all of this to a transparent, bipartisan discussion may even make it significantly easier to present the package to the electorate.