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Obama finds support outside party and Washington for healthcare plan

At the president's request, Republicans, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and independents from beyond the Beltway offer qualified support for healthcare overhaul.

October 07, 2009|Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON — With congressional Republicans defying him on healthcare, President Obama is trolling for prominent GOP officials and independents outside Washington who will publicly endorse his plans as the legislative fight moves toward a crucial phase.

On Tuesday, the White House rolled out its latest trophy -- a letter from Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger saying he shares many of the same healthcare goals as the president, including "slowing the growth in costs" and "enhancing the quality of care."

The day before, the White House had contacted Schwarzenegger's office and asked if he would make a public declaration, and he agreed, according to the governor's aides.

White House officials have also asked New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, an independent and former Republican, to state his views publicly, and the mayor has complied.

Another Republican, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, who served as secretary of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration, declared in a statement distributed by the White House on Monday that "failure to reach an agreement on healthcare reform this year is not an acceptable option."

Neither Schwarzenegger's nor Bloomberg's general views on healthcare were a secret. But the timing of their latest statements served a potentially important political function for the White House: Expressions of support from prominent Republicans and independents offered cover to any wavering lawmakers worried about a backlash back home if they voted for the bill.

"The president is trying to build the broadest coalition possible for his approach to reforming the healthcare system," said Reid Cherlin, a White House spokesman. "We often find a very different, less partisan approach outside the hot house of the Beltway."

Eliciting expressions of GOP support was also part of an aggressive and carefully orchestrated White House campaign to accelerate its push for congressional support as major decision points draw nearer.

The full House is preparing to begin debate on its version of a healthcare overhaul as early as this week.

The Senate Finance Committee is likely to vote on its more moderate version of a plan sometime next week. Senate Democratic leaders will shape a final version for consideration by the full chamber after that, with floor votes and a House-Senate conference expected farther down the road.

On Monday, Obama hosted an event in the Rose Garden, in which doctors clad in white coats rallied behind his plan. A point pushed by Obama was that the doctors "represent all 50 states."

Schwarzenegger aides were aware of the political dynamics at work. "This was a big ask coming from them [the White House]," said one Schwarzenegger administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity so as to speak more openly. "There's no question that they're making a very concerted push right now to bring in nationally recognized, high-level Republicans and independents."

Schwarzenegger has reservations about pieces of the healthcare bill now being negotiated. He dislikes the so-called public option -- a government-run insurance program that would compete with private health insurers.

And he opposes what his spokesman, Aaron McLear, called "unfunded mandates" on states. But he believes that "the system is broken and needs fixing," McLear said.

As he touts Republican support, however, Obama needs to worry that even some influential Democrats are not convinced, GOP strategists said.

Last week, Democratic governors sent a letter to congressional leaders proclaiming that "the status quo is no longer an option" and urging passage of a healthcare bill this year. Six Democratic governors did not sign the letter for various reasons.

In the case of New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, he did not sign because the letter failed to "address concerns regarding potential cost shifting to the states," said Colin Manning, a spokesman for the governor.

"And this concern has been shared by a number of governors that Gov. Lynch has spoken to across the country," Manning said.

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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