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Obama Gives Democrats Health Care Pep Talk

By Kathleen Hunter, CQ Staff

August 4, 2009 -- President Obama gave Senate Democrats a pep talk on their health care overhaul efforts Tuesday as the lawmakers prepare to counter blistering attacks from Republicans over the August recess.

"We're ready to take on the world," Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after Obama hosted the full Democratic Caucus at a White House lunch.

Reid said the meeting gave Democrats a chance to reflect on their accomplishments so far in 2009 and to prepare to rally support for completing a health care overhaul later this year.

"In spite of the loud, shrill voices trying to interrupt town hall meetings and just try to throw a monkey wrench into everything, we're going to continue to be positive and work hard," Reid said, referring to protests at Democratic town hall meetings on health care in Texas, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.

At the president's invitation, Senate Democrats scrapped their usual party lunch in the Mansfield Room just off the Senate chamber to dine at the White House with the president on Obama's 48th birthday.

"It was a good spirit in there, and I don't think it was just because it's the president's birthday," White House senior adviser David Axelrod told reporters gathered outside the West Wing.

The meeting clearly was designed to get Democrats working from a common playbook over the August recess. Centrist party members in both chambers have become increasingly skittish about details of the health care bill and its price tag, as Republicans have kept up withering attacks on both.

A significant number of fiscally conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats voted against the House health care bill (HR 3200) in each of the three committees that approved it.

"There was absolute unity in the caucus," Reid said of the Senate Democrats, adding that Obama received several standing ovations. "Different ideas were expressed, but every idea was that we understand that before year's end, we're going to have comprehensive health care reform."

Still Seeking Bipartisan Bill

Reid said the White House and Senate Democrats agreed that they would pass a bipartisan bill if that were "in any way humanly possible."

"We don't want to do a partisan bill, and we hope our Republican colleagues acknowledge that," he said. "We'll continue to work with them as long as we have to. The American people want health care reform, and we're going to do health care reform."

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Obama did not pressure him to move faster on getting a proposal through his committee. Baucus has been negotiating for weeks with two other Finance panel Democrats and three committee Republicans, including ranking member Charles E. Grassley of Iowa.

"In fact, he was very thankful for us working to get a bipartisan bill," Baucus said.

After returning to Capitol Hill, Baucus said, "If it gets to the point where we can't get an agreement on a bipartisan basis, then we'll have to look at other alternatives. I mean, we all agree that that's necessary. We can't keep talking forever."

He added, "We need an internal deadline and we will have one. It's not right to set hard external deadlines, but it is important to have deadlines to force results. The world is somewhat run by deadlines."

Baucus had discussed a Sept. 15 deadline for a deal with the small group of Finance Committee negotiators, but he backed off publicly after the Republican participants objected. The White House has set no hard deadlines.

"Sometime around the middle of September, we may have to have some serious discussions of what's next," Baucus said.

Reconciliation a Last Resort

Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said use of the budget reconciliation process to get a health care bill through the Senate was discussed only as a last resort.

"It is an option, but it's not a first option," Durbin said. "We want to try bipartisanship, but we're not going to let this go down."

Reconciliation bills can pass the Senate with a simple majority instead of the 60 votes needed to thwart blocking tactics by the opposition.

Democrats theoretically control 60 votes in the Senate, but the absence of Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., leaves them short of that number as a practical matter.

Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., who has led the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee's health bill efforts in Kennedy's absence, said his committee members were "ready and willing, of course, to sit down and meld our legislation" with whatever bill Baucus' panel finally produces, and then to "begin to work with the House" on a final product.

Baucus said Obama motivated Senate Democrats to sell a health care overhaul over the recess. "We're going to get health care reform passed this year, working together," he insisted.

Meanwhile, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he welcomed the forced delay imposed by the August recess, which the Senate begins at the end of this week.

"All indications are at this point that the American people would like for us to slow down and try to get this right, because of the magnitude of it," McConnell said. "So August will be a good opportunity for all of us, regardless of what our leanings may be on how to deal with this issue, to go home, interact with our constituents, and come back here in September with a stronger understanding of exactly where the American people might be on this most important issue."

Bart Jansen, Richard Rubin, and Adriel Bettelheim contributed to this story.

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