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Let's hope health summit wasn't a fraud

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., Special to CNN
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr. lauds the health care summit, says leaders ought to hold more such events
  • Navarrette: Let's hope it was real and not preparation for Democrats to pass unpopular health bill
  • Navarrette: Democrats control levers of government in Washington
  • Some Democrats up for re-election are terrified of passing "the big bill," he writes

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune.

San Diego, California (CNN) -- There was a lot to appreciate in yesterday's bipartisan White House health care summit between President Obama and members of Congress.

No really. This is the kind of thing that our leaders ought to do three or four times a year on a variety of issues -- from Social Security to education to immigration to job creation. Why not? Put aside the sound bites and partisan barbs. Get beyond the dueling appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows. And bring your best ideas and most constructive suggestions to the table.

Obama deserves credit for convening the meeting. His opening remarks were good, especially when he talked about the rising costs of health insurance premiums, the "exploding costs of Medicare and Medicaid," and how he wanted to "make sure that this discussion is actually a discussion and not just us trading talking points."

I also appreciated his candid discussion of health scares years ago involving his own daughters and how he wondered "What would have happened if I didn't have reliable health care?" And his acknowledgement that "Everybody here understands the desperation that people feel when they're sick."

That is, assuming everything that happened yesterday at Blair House was real -- and not merely a theatrical setup for a Democratic-led effort next week to push through, using reconciliation, what Democrats on the Hill call "the big bill."

That's Obama's comprehensive $950 billion plan to radically reform the nation's health care system -- the one opposed by every Republican in Congress and, according to polls, a majority of Americans.

Video: Pelosi: 'very confident'
Video: A spirited health care summit
Video: Passing health care
Video: Health summit fireworks

Reconciliation is a procedural maneuver that allows the Senate to pass the health care bill with 51 votes rather than the 60 votes required to end a filibuster. Yet, according to a recent Gallup poll, more than half of Americans -- 52 percent -- oppose Democrats resorting to reconciliation to pass a bill.

And while Republicans are still holding out hope that Obama and congressional Democrats will go back to the drawing board and start with a blank piece of paper, that appears unlikely since Democrats seem to be "all in" on their piece of legislation.

So what was the point of the summit? It might well have been to create a foil. According to what an unnamed Democratic official told, the purpose of the event was to give a face to gridlock.

Democrats intend over the next few weeks to spin this narrative suggesting that they tried, really tried, to work with Republicans but the "party of no" was just too obstinate and too uncompromising. So Democrats had no choice but to rely on the perfectly legitimate process known as reconciliation.

So the summit was a fraud? A charade? I hope not. Even in Washington, there has to be a limit to cynicism. And I'd hope this would be it. I'd hope that Obama and Democratic lawmakers wouldn't toy with the American people on an issue as important as this one.

Talk about broken government. The public wants solutions to our health care problems -- however they're defined -- and not partisan gimmicks that give "a face to gridlock." Even many of those Americans who oppose the Democratic plan turn around to tell pollsters, in the next breath, that the current system has too much cost and not enough common sense. No one approves of the status quo. That's at least something to agree on.

And while Obama got a lot of things right in his remarks, he also made a big mistake when -- at the very outset of the discussion -- he defined as the baseline "the House and the Senate legislation that's already passed." That told Republicans that they were not getting their blank sheet of paper, and that the best they could hope for was to tweak but not substantially change the Democratic plans.

It also did something else. It reminded the American people of who calls the shots in Washington. It's the party in power. Democrats control all the levers of government, at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Remember that fact. Write it down. For President Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership, the real obstacles to reform aren't Republicans -- who don't have any power -- but fellow Democrats who are up for re-election and who are terrified of "the big bill." They represent districts that either Obama lost to John McCain in 2008 or in which Obama barely squeaked out a victory. So they're not going anywhere near this unpopular piece of legislation. Who can blame them?

Whatever happens on health care, Democrats alone deserve, depending on your view, either the credit or the blame. You see, the real face of gridlock is theirs.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarette, Jr.