GOP unmoved as Obama renews health care push

Democrats seek way to pass bill without help

BREAKING THE SILENCE Obama prepared for a pep talk today to an audience of liberal activists, whose enthusiasm has been questioned. BREAKING THE SILENCE
Obama prepared for a pep talk today to an audience of liberal activists, whose enthusiasm has been questioned.
By Charles Babington
Associated Press / August 20, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama is broadening his push to overhaul health care, even as congressional Democrats quietly pursue ways to pass the bill without Republican help.

After two days of silence on health care, Obama reengaged yesterday, urging religious leaders to back his proposals and “spread the facts and speak the truth’’ against critics who are “frankly bearing false witness.’’ He also prepared for a pep talk today to a much larger audience of liberal activists, whose enthusiasm has been questioned.

Administration officials said they still hope for a bipartisan breakthrough on Obama’s far-reaching goals of expanding health coverage, controlling costs, and increasing competition among insurers.

“The president believes strongly in working with Republicans and Democrats, independents, any that seek to reform health care,’’ White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday. “The president strongly believes that we’re making progress.’’

A key Senate Democratic negotiator, Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, said his group of three Democrats and three Republicans “is on track to reach a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive health care reform’’ that can pass a divided Senate. Baucus said the negotiators, dubbed the “Gang of Six,’’ will hold a teleconference today to continue their talks.

His Republican counterpart, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, has recently come under fire for his harsh public statements about the Democratic proposals. But Grassley said yesterday that he is not giving up, either, although he did not sound nearly as optimistic as Baucus.

“Something as big and important as health care legislation should have broad-based support,’’ Grassley said. “So far, no one has developed that kind of support, either in Congress or at the White House. That doesn’t mean we should quit. It means we should keep working until we can put something together that gets that widespread support.’’

Privately, however, top Democrats said a bipartisan accord seems less likely than ever. Administration officials and congressional Democrats were deeply discouraged this week when key Republican lawmakers seemed more critical than ever about various Democratic-drafted health care bills pending in the House and Senate. As a result, Democratic leaders are preparing strategies for a possible one-party legislative push soon after Congress reconvenes next month.

Officials said Democratic researchers have recently concluded that a strong-arm Senate tactic, which could negate the need for any GOP votes, might be more effective than previously thought.

The strategy, called reconciliation, allows senators to get around a bill-killing filibuster without mustering the 60 votes usually needed.

Democrats control 60 of the Senate’s 100 seats, but two of their members, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, are seriously ill and often absent.

While always controversial, reconciliation lets the Senate pass some measures with a simple majority vote. But items not related to the budget can be challenged, and some lawmakers say reconciliation would knock so many provisions from Obama’s health care plan that the result would amount to Swiss cheese.

Another prominent GOP Senate negotiator warned Democrats yesterday not to shut them out.

“If the Democrats choose to go it alone, their health care plan will fail, because the American people will have no confidence in it,’’ said Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming.

But Democratic aides say they increasingly believe that those warnings are overblown.

Yesterday, Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid, warned Republicans that reconciliation is a real option. Reid has given Baucus a Sept. 15 deadline for an agreement.

The White House and Senate Democratic leaders still prefer a bipartisan bill, Manley said. But “patience is not unlimited, and we are determined to get something done this year by any legislative means necessary,’’ he said.