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Democrats want Obama to push health bill

No deal seen with GOP at today’s summit

By Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery
Washington Post / February 25, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Congressional Democrats are already looking beyond the White House health care summit, figuring that today’s session will amount to little more than political theater and focusing instead on a final round of intraparty negotiations that are likely to determine the fate of President Obama’s top domestic priority.

Although Obama is billing the White House gathering as an opportunity for Republicans to air their ideas for reform, Democrats do not expect it to reveal much common ground and are showing little willingness to abandon the basic outline of legislation that the House and Senate have approved.

“It largely depends what the Republicans come to the table with,’’ said Senator Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who will attend the summit. “If it’s just coming to repeat a lot of the stuff we’ve heard for six months, then I don’t expect much out of it.’’

Democrats hope that after today’s meeting, Obama will bring a more forceful approach to his role as lead negotiator on health care reform. To the frustration of many on Capitol Hill, the president has offered broad objectives and cut deals with individual lawmakers but seldom put the weight of his office behind demands for specific provisions in legislation.

Only if the president is willing to take command of the debate, Democrats in both chambers said, will a health care reform bill have any chance of reaching his desk. “The difference here now is the president is not in a back room with his sleeves rolled up trying to play Lyndon Johnson,’’ said Representative Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York.

“He’s now out there being Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Abe Lincoln - which, you know, is what we’ve needed all along,’’ Weiner said. “That’s what we really need here. And that’s why I believe the vote count on things is not static.’’

Obama’s toughest audience today may be members of his own party, who have been feuding since a Massachusetts special election cost Democrats their 60th vote in the Senate. House Democrats fume that the Senate took too long to pass its version of health care legislation, causing the debate to spill into the midterm election season. Senate Democrats want their House counterparts to back off their more expensive plan and accept the bill that the Senate passed on Christmas Eve.

With a single roll-call vote, the House could send the Senate version of health care reform directly to Obama for his signature. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, along with White House officials, have spent recent weeks weighing potential “fixes’’ to the bill that would address House Democratic objections. Those changes could be offered as a separate bill, protected from filibuster under special budget rules known as reconciliation that would allow it to pass the Senate with a simple majority.

The faction that most concerns House leaders is the conservative Blue Dog coalition, which saw 24 defections when the health care reform bill came to a vote in November.

With a 10-year cost of about $950 billion, Obama’s compromise is less costly than the House bill, a point that should appeal to the fiscally conservative caucus. But health care reform has become so fraught politically that House leaders worry about losing Blue Dogs who previously supported the bill, as they run for cover in their districts, which are often closely contested.

Another nettlesome issue is abortion. The Senate bill takes a slightly more lenient approach to preventing federal subsidies from paying for insurance policies that cover abortion, and abortion opponents have deemed it unacceptable.

Representative Bart Stupak, a Michigan Democrat who is a leader among antiabortion Democrats in the House, warned that an additional dozen Democrats could join him in voting against the Senate bill.

Abortion rights supporters are not happy, either. More than 40 House Democrats signed a letter saying they would vote against any bill that would restrict current access to coverage, and a delegation of abortion rights supporters visited the White House on Tuesday to lobby on the issue.

Gerald Connolly, Democrat of Virginia, said the summit marks the beginning of Obama’s last, best chance to achieve his top domestic policy goal.

“It may involve hand-holding or holding of noses, but either you buy into the idea of health-care reform that transcends everything else you want to do, or you seal its fate,’’ Connolly said. “The question is: Do you want this, or do you want nothing?’’

Where to watch
Complete live coverage of the summit begins today at 9:45 a.m. on C-SPAN3 and C-SPAN.org, with gavel-to-gavel retransmissions during prime time on C-SPAN and C-SPAN2.