WASHINGTON - In a make or break move, President Barack Obama on Friday challenged three dozen Republicans and Democrats to participate in a one-of-its-kind televised health care summit this month to thrash out a deal to overhaul the nation's system.
Republicans immediately greeted the invite to the unusual Feb. 25 event with derision, casting doubt on whether it would yield any bipartisan agreement to extend coverage and rein in medical costs.
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio questioned the makeup of the guest list and continued closed-door Democratic negotiations to produce a final bill.
"Are they willing to start over with a blank sheet of paper? We need answers before we know if the White House is more interested in partisan theater than in facilitating a productive dialogue about solutions," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Boehner.
The summit is considered a last, best attempt to revive what was once Obama's top domestic priority, now stalled after Democrats lost their filibuster-proof Senate majority. Yet since Obama proposed the summit last weekend, Republicans and Democrats have voiced skepticism, with some in the GOP wondering if it would be nothing but a spectacle that could benefit the president at their expense.
By presiding over a meeting with three dozen lawmakers trying to get a word in edgewise, Obama may be able to dominate the conversation.
In its invitation, the White House argued that remaking health was imperative, and Obama challenged Democrats and Republicans to come up with comprehensive bills before the Blair House event - ones that would be posted online.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius cited the recent 39 percent rate hikes by Anthem Blue Cross in California as urgent proof the overhaul effort must be completed.
The letter was sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
The White House named 21 lawmakers the president wants to attend the event: the top leaders in the House and Senate and of the committees with jurisdiction over the health legislation. Obama also invited the top four leaders to invite four more lawmakers each, bringing the total to 37 - 20 Democrats and 17 Republicans.