Obama launches full-court press on healthcare reform

The Obama administration on Tuesday began a full-court press for healthcare reform, as the president huddled with Senate Democrats over strategy and the White House offered bold claims about the economic benefits of reform.

The president’s meeting with Democratic lawmakers came as House and Senate committees are on the cusp of introducing the first comprehensive healthcare bills of the year. Senate Democrats also discussed healthcare reform during their caucus lunch on Tuesday.

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Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) left the White House meeting confident that the president is ready to put his personal touch and the power of his office behind healthcare reform, something Democrats say is vital if the plan is to win over the pubic and lure Republicans on board.

Obama “made it clear that he’s going to use his bully pulpit,” Wyden said.

Some Senate Democrats, such as Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), have clamored for Obama to get more directly involved in helping lawmakers hash out the final package. Administration officials are in regular contact with congressional Democrats, but face-time with Obama is more effective by an order of magnitude.

Obama spoke Tuesday with the leaders of both Senate committees handling healthcare reform.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) attended the White House meeting, and Obama said he talked by phone Tuesday morning to Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is ailing from a brain tumor and has been away from Washington most of the year. “He is gung-ho, ready to go,” Obama said. “He is very enthusiastic about our progress.”

As details and hints have eked out of the closed-door meetings of both committees, signs indicate that the HELP Committee is poised to propose a more liberal measure than Finance, particularly on issues such as Medicaid expansions and the creation of a public plan to provide health benefits.

The divide on policy is no surprise given the political differences between Kennedy and the more centrist Baucus. The two chairmen have repeatedly vowed to merge their bills into a unified product before presenting it for Senate debate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he is confident that the competing bills would be reconciled smoothly. “There seems to be real unity between the two committees,” he said. “I think we can merge them.”

Dodd, who has stepped in to take on some of Kennedy’s responsibilities on the committee, reiterated that promise Tuesday morning at a press briefing with administration officials.

Less information has emerged from the House, though any measure passed by the more partisan lower chamber is expected to tilt more to the left.

Some thought Kennedy would be in Washington to oversee healthcare reform this week, but his office said he would remain away.

“Sen. Kennedy is doing a good job at balancing his work on healthcare reform with his treatment plan, but he’s not planning to be back on the Hill this week,” his spokesman Anthony Coley said.

Democrats also must figure out how to cover the $1 trillion-plus cost of reform. Reid conceded that is the most difficult question to answer, and that all ideas — including tax increases — will be considered.

At a press briefing alongside Baucus and Dodd, senior administration officials trumpeted a report by the Council of Economic Advisers that made the case that healthcare reform would be good for economic growth.

By assuming that healthcare spending grows 1.5 percentage points slower over decades, the report concludes that healthcare will boost the U.S. economy by 8 percent by 2030. “If we do health reform right, the benefits to the economy will be enormous,” said Christina Romer, chairwoman of the council.

White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag and National Economic Council Chairman Larry Summers also attended the press conference.

Romer conceded that the report did not spell out how healthcare reform would achieve those lofty goals, a point not lost on Republicans, who complained the administration still has not offered a plan on healthcare.

In the meantime, one key Republican had a question: What about us?

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is the only GOP lawmaker who has been invited to the White House to talk healthcare with the president. On Tuesday, Grassley indicated that one meeting, which he shared with Baucus, was not enough.

“When Sen. Baucus and I had lunch with President Obama on May 6, he said he wanted a bipartisan healthcare reform bill. I think the president is the one who can make the difference in achieving that outcome in his meeting with Senate Democrats today,” Grassley said in a statement issued during the meeting.

When asked why no Republicans were invited, Baucus told reporters to ask Obama.

“He’s [Obama] going to be meeting with Republicans as well, as he has in the past,” a White House official said.

Since the Baucus-Grassley meeting, Obama not only hosted Senate Democrats on Tuesday but also House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the chairmen of the House committees writing the healthcare bill.

“Our determination is to make this a bipartisan effort if we can,” Dodd said at the White House following the meeting, noting that he planned to have dinner with HELP Committee ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) Tuesday.

Grassley has refrained from bomb-throwing about the Democrats’ plans for healthcare reform so far this year as he and Baucus continue to hold out hope that they can achieve a grand compromise that accomplishes their stated goal of passing a healthcare bill in the Senate with more than 70 votes.

But with the HELP and Finance committees set to mark up their bills in the next three weeks, the GOP is increasingly at risk of being shut out.



Jeremy P. Jacobs and J. Taylor Rushing
contributed to this article.