By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) — Could this turn into something more than political theater?
President Barack Obama's televised dialogue with Republican lawmakers on health care, promised for later this month, has the makings of an entertaining exchange. But the differences between the basic Democratic and GOP ideas are stark — and the two sides have increasingly hardened their positions in this election year.
Yet, in a story with more twists than a soap opera, Obama's invitation to congressional leaders of both parties to attend a Feb. 25 meeting can't be dismissed as a mere diversion. Although many Americans have doubts about the Democrats' sweeping plans to cover the uninsured, Republicans can't afford to be perceived as oblivious to the health care insecurities of middle-class families.
"My expectations? Probably below 50%, but not zero," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., a moderate who serves as president of the Democratic freshman class. "At some point, the public is going to demand that Republicans participate like mature adults, and not just say 'no' to everything."
It's the Democrats' big-government approach — not Republicans — that's the problem, insisted Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., author of the House GOP bill. "The president has got to show that he has heard what the American people are saying. He's got to make clear we are not going to start off with the current bill."
But where to start?
— Democrats want an upfront commitment to cover most of the nearly 50 million uninsured Americans. Republicans prefer first taking steps to cut costs, then revisiting the issue of full coverage over time.
— Democrats would raise taxes to provide government subsidies for people who can't afford to buy health insurance. Republicans say now is not the time to increase taxes.
— Both sides want to bar insurance companies from turning down people with health problems, but only Democrats propose requiring most people to get coverage — a necessary first step, according to most experts.