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A determined Obama 'cautiously optimistic' Senate will pass healthcare overhaul

'This reform has to pass on our watch,' the president says after a closed-door meeting to rally Senate Democrats.

December 15, 2009|By Noam N. Levey and Janet Hook

Reporting from Washington — President Obama, acknowledging that he will have to accept serious compromises in the passage of a healthcare overhaul, insisted today that he would not let the public down on an issue that he had made the centerpiece of his first-year domestic agenda.

"I am feeling cautiously optimistic that we can get this done," said Obama, stern during a public appearance that followed a closed-door session with Senate Democrats who are struggling to hold the votes needed for passage of a healthcare bill.

Obama, rallying Democratic senators at the White House today in hopes of passing a healthcare bill next week, pressed them not to let disagreements over details of their legislation undercut their drive to realize the party's decades-long dream of expanding coverage.

"From the discussions we had, it's clear that we are on the precipice of an achievement that has eluded Congresses and presidents for decades," Obama said after their meeting.

"This was not a roll call," the president said, appearing with Senate Democrats in the Roosevelt Room of the West Wing. "This was a broad-based discussion about how we move forward."

The seriousness of the divisions that have surfaced within the Democratic caucus was clear in the urgency that Obama voiced today.

"This reform has to pass on our watch," the president said. "Now let's be clear. The final bill won't include everything that everybody wants. No bill can do that."

The American public is "waiting for us to act," Obama said, "and I don't intend to let them down."

Obama and Senate Democratic leaders are scrambling to hold together their caucus despite a decision to eliminate the last vestiges of a proposal to create a new government-run insurance plan, the so-called "public option," long cherished by liberals.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is expected Wednesday to outline a new proposed compromise, which was forced on the party by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and other conservative Democrats uneasy about a proposal to expand Medicare.

That compromise picked up important support today from several leading consumer groups, including the AARP, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, Consumers Union and Families USA.

The groups plan to join the Service Employees International Union, which has been a leading advocate for a new government insurance plan, at the Capitol on Wednesday to urge senators to quash a Republican-led filibuster next week.

In addition, Health Care for America Now, the influential coalition of liberal activist groups, planned to send a letter to Reid today calling for passage of the legislation, according to Richard Kirsch, the group's campaign manager.

"There are major problems with the Senate bill," Kirsch said in an interview today. "But if the Senate doesn't act, there will be no healthcare reform. ... The place to fix [the Senate bill] is in a conference committee" with House and Senate leaders at the table.

Without any GOP support, all 60 lawmakers in the Senate Democratic caucus -- including two independents -- will have to vote for a procedural motion for the bill to advance. It will then have to be reconciled with a version passed by the House last month.

In the House, a stronger bulwark of liberalism than the Senate, Democrats acknowledged a weak bargaining position because they were unwilling to kill the bill because it didn't go far enough.

"We progressives are negotiating with a gun to our heads," said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.)."Our opponents are saying, 'Go ahead and shoot.' If you're a public-option fan, you haven't had a good week."

Weiner expressed bitterness that Obama had not provided more aggressive support for a new government plan.

"Other presidents have weighed into big national debates more muscularly than this president has," Weiner said.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), welcomed any compromise that would get the bill through the Senate but showed little enthusiasm for the jury-rigged compromise that they were seeing emerge.

"We in the House have made a beautiful soufflé, but the Senate has scrambled an egg," said Miller, noting that Reid already had said he expected to accept the House's more-generous prescription-drug subsidies. "Let's hope they will find more they like in the House bill."

But others fully expected that the path being blazed by the Senate will be hard for the House to stray from on big issues such as the public option.

"We are not going to vote against healthcare in the final analysis, because what we'll get from the Senate will be better than what we have now," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.). White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel "told us months ago: Everything can be compromised except our ultimate goal of getting something done. Everything else is negotiable."

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