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Thump-Thump ... Thump-Thump

Friday brought yet more reason to think health care reform has a pulse--still a bit weak, perhaps, but getting stronger.

It came when President Obama issued his formal invitation to the bipartisan meeting on February 25. The invitation sketched out the who (Congressional leaders and ranking committee members from each party, plus a few guests), the where (Blair House), and the what (opening remarks followed by discussion about key policy questions.)

But the letter's most important passage was this one:

Since this meeting will be most productive if information is widely available before the meeting, we will post online the text of a proposed health insurance reform package. This legislation would put a stop to insurance company abuses, extend coverage to millions of Americans, get control of skyrocketing premiums and out-of-pocket costs, and reduce the deficit.

That passage seems to suggest one of the following is true:

1) House and Senate leadership have nearly finished negotiating a new compromise version of their legislation. The text the administration plans to post will reflect that compromise.

2) House and Senate leadership are still struggling to come to an agreement, if not over what to pass then in what sequence to pass it. The administration hopes this promise will force them to wrap things up.

Actually, conversations with various sources over the weekend make me think the truth is some combination, although I'm relying on people who, in many cases, admit they're not entirely sure themselves. (That could be because not very many people know--or because I'm just not talking to the right people.) But it seems to me that either interpretation would constitute progress of a sort.

If it's (1), the House and Senate have finally worked out most of their differences. If it's (2), President Obama is starting to give them the shove they need. Many insiders, including quite a few Hill staffers, have been saying for a while that it will take White House intervention to break the impasse. And, until now, that intervention hasn't been evident.

One more reason for (relative) optimism is the very next paragraph of the invitation:

It is the President’s hope that the Republican congressional leadership will also put forward their own comprehensive bill to achieve those goals and make it available online as well.

Republicans want to make this event--and, indeed, this whole debate--a referendum on the Democratic health care reform plan. Obama wants to make this a referendum on what to do about the nation’s health care problems, with each party putting forward its ideas. And it looks to me like Obama will get his way.

If the Republicans don’t post a plan, everybody will see that the GOP isn't serious about health care reform. If the Republicans do post a plan, they'll have to defend it. That might look even worse, given how unpromising their ideas are, although I realize that's a matter of opinion. 

Here's how one insider analyzed the situation:

I think the White House is calling the bluff of leadership for both parties, in both houses.  The Democratic leadership has consistently said they are quite close to finalizing an agreement, at least among themselves, so this forces them to finalize or cede the power to the White House to make final calls.  The Republican Leadership constantly suggests they have ideas for thoughtful reforms that would constrain costs and expand coverage, but their policies to date do neither well or at all.  In fact, there is an argument that they would make things worse, particularly for those who need the help the most–older, sicker American citizens. Insisting the Republicans lock in a particular vision forces their hand more than they want and makes them show the world they are divided or show that they are the obstructionists or show their unified policy vision doesn’t do much on the key issues.

To be clear, passing reform will still be tough. Among other things, it's one thing to get the Democratic leadership to agree on a proposal, quite another to get the wavering Democratic rank-and-file to go along with it. And the Republicans surely understand the situation as well as the Democrats do. They won't walk into this meeting unprepared.

Update: I see now that Steve Benen made some of the same observations over the weekend.

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