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Bickering continues as health care summit nears

From Deirdre Walsh, CNN Congressional Producer
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "We're not going to start over," top Senate Democrat says
  • GOP: "It's nearly impossible to imagine a scenario under which we can reach agreement"
  • White House holding bipartisan summit on reform Thursday
  • House speaker says she has "great optimism"

Washington (CNN) -- The day before the White House's bipartisan summit on health care reform, there didn't appear to be much mood for compromise on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Chris Dodd, a key author of the Senate health care bill, said flatly Wednesday that if Republicans continue to demand that Democrats scrap their health care proposals and start over, "then there's nothing to talk about."

"If you expect me to start all over on this, there's really not much point in this, 'cause we're not going to start over," Dodd said.

But Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell argued that's exactly what Republicans want.

"Unless they're willing to do that, I think it's nearly impossible to imagine a scenario under which we can reach agreement, because we don't think we ought to pass a 2,700-page bill that seeks to restructure one-sixth of our economy," McConnell said.

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Dodd said Democrats and Republicans could find some common ground in some areas, such as the Republican push to allow insurers to sell insurance across state lines. Dodd called the GOP proposal "a legitimate issue" but added that Democrats have a version of that proposal in their legislation.

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House and Senate Democrats participating in Thursday's summit met in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office to game out their approach for the meeting. Republicans held their own strategy session in McConnell's office later Wednesday afternoon.

Pelosi said she had "great optimism" about the meeting. But she declined to give any specifics about how Democrats will proceed on health care reform. She also sidestepped questions about Democrats' plans to use a controversial parliamentary shortcut to bypass GOP opposition and pass a health care bill.

"We're talking about substance. I'm going there to talk about substance. We agree that we should have universal access to coverage, with affordability for the middle class and accountability for the insurance companies. That, to me, is what the subject is about tomorrow," Pelosi said.

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But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota, admitted that Democrats did talk Wednesday morning about using "reconciliation" to move health care legislation. He said they anticipate that the issue will come up at Thursday's summit.

Reconciliation is a process, limited to budget-related bills, that bypasses the Senate rule on 60 votes being needed to end debate. When it is used, only a majority vote would be needed to advance a bill.

Dodd said Democrats don't want to go that route but added, "we've been forced to consider that as an option, and I believe you must consider it. The issue of health insurance and health reform is so important that we can't afford to get lost in the process debate around here over how you get it done."

McConnell warned that the political consequences would be severe if Democrats moved forward without GOP support.

Pointing to the backlash over the special deal in the Senate bill for Nebraska's Democratic senator, Ben Nelson, to cover his state's Medicaid costs, McConnell said, "If they think the American people are mad at them now, they haven't seen anything yet."

The No. 2 House Republican, Eric Cantor of Virginia, released a memo to reporters slamming Democrats for discussing the idea of using reconciliation.

On Democratic strategy, Cantor said, "Their endgame is clear: Demand support for their approach, or go it alone using reconciliation. This partisan tactic -- once soundly rejected by Democrats -- now appears to be a foregone conclusion. That's a sad statement for bipartisanship and for America."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pointed out this week that reconciliation has been used more than 20 times since 1981 by both parties.

Conrad said he expected the president to make opening remarks at the summit, followed by opening statements from Republican and Democratic leaders from the House and Senate. He also said Democrats plan to divide who will take the lead in the four subject areas the White House outlined: controlling costs, insurance reforms, reducing the deficit and expanding coverage.

Conrad said he has been asked to take the lead on debt and deficit issues.

 
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