Obama takes healthcare push on the road

The leading senators involved in healthcare reform were summed to the White House for a surprise meeting Wednesday, the day before President Obama takes his sales pitch on the road.

Healthcare has been the main topic on Capitol Hill this week, and Obama takes it to the rest of the country on Thursday with a town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wis.

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Obama assembled the Democratic and Republican committee leaders at the White House Wednesday morning, where he stressed a bipartisan approach to the 651-page bill. But the senators said while Obama remained flexible on many of the provisions, he insisted that Congress must pass a bill this year.

"I thought the president was flexible except in one area, and that was 'get something done,’ “ said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Finance Committee.

The senators said they remain committed to a schedule that includes committee markups in June and a bill on the floor in July.

"We assured him we're going to keep to our schedule," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said.

The committee leaders weren’t the only lawmakers spotted at the White House on Wednesday. Along with Baucus, Grassley, Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has been working on a bill that has bipartisan support, was seen going into the West Wing.

Baucus and others said the president is staying flexible on a number of contentious issues that have come up during the debate, but the White House was coy about how much or in what areas Obama is willing to bend.

"The president's going to watch what happens on Capitol Hill, and we'll have more to say as it gets closer to us," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

And one way for the president to sell his proposal is to take it outside the Beltway. It’s an approach that has worked for him before. He had blockbuster success in getting his economic plan through Congress by selling it in town hall-style meetings in small towns in Indiana and Florida.

The president's first healthcare focused townhall on Thursday will be followed with a speech to the American Medial Association (AMA) in Chicago on Monday.

Gibbs said that in Green Bay and Chicago events Obama will talk about "how we improve the way healthcare is delivered, the steps that have been taken as part of the recovery act to make those steps easier and more cost-efficient."

He did not say if the president would talk to the AMA about some of their key issues like reimbursements or liability.

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"He'll make clear why we can't afford to wait another year or another administration to bring down costs that are crushing families, businesses and government," Gibbs said. "In the speech, the president will discuss the reasons why past efforts have failed, and he'll address the consequences of failing to act again this year.

"He'll lay out plainly what healthcare reform will mean for American families and their doctors and what it won't."

Ahead of the president's trip to Wisconsin, Organizing for American (OFA), the wing of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) armed with Obama's massive campaign supporter list, held a conference call with reporters and Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Wis.) to preview the president's case.

Kagen, a licensed physician, said Obama can learn what Americans want in healthcare reform "because he really does listen to ordinary people," but the congressman said he does not expect the president to offer anymore details beyond the outline he has given Congress.

"I think he's going to focus on the need to change our healthcare system under the guidelines that he has put forward," Kagen said, adding that those guidelines are "the outline of a great way to move forward."

Obama has enjoyed immense legislative success after traveling around the country to push for some of his more hotly debated initiatives, most notably his $787 billion stimulus plan.

And by stressing a bipartisan approach to healthcare, Obama is aiming to avoid the same fate of the Clinton administration’s healthcare reform initiative. The Clinton White House avoided input from lawmakers when it assembled a universal healthcare package and the plan was killed on Capitol Hill.

Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein noted that "the biggest benefit for Obama going on the road is that he gets the stage to himself and he has an unimpeded opportunity to refocus and redefine the debate."

By doing that, Gerstein said, he can force the hand of Congress to move at the pace he is demanding.

"It reasserts the primary of the president," Gerstein said. "It elevates him beyond being one part of the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor and tends to force congress to respond to him."