Looking to unite Democrats on health reform, Obama takes partisan tone

In sharp contrast to how he got elected, President Barack Obama is bashing Republicans this week while urging Democrats to unite behind his effort to reform the nation’s healthcare system.

Months after some Democrats on and off Capitol Hill were suggesting that healthcare reform could attract 70 to 80 votes in the Senate, Obama and congressional leaders are focused on uniting their party and picking up, at most, a couple GOP defectors to help clear the 60-vote hurdle in the upper chamber.

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Obama’s recent plea for Democratic cohesion is reminiscent of his post-primary speech, in which he and vanquished rival Hillary Rodham Clinton stood together in Unity, N.H., in July 2008.

A senior administration official said Wednesday that they are getting reports from Capitol Hill that a bill could be ready in the Senate by Friday or Monday, which Obama alluded to Monday night when asking Democrats to help him and support the measure.

“Then we have to support it,” Obama said earlier this week. “You know, sometimes Democrats can be their own worst enemies. Democrats are an opinionated bunch. You know, the other side, they just kind of sometimes do what they’re told. Democrats, you all are thinking for yourselves. I like that in you. But it’s time for us to make sure that we finish the job here. We are this close. And we’ve got to be unified.”

Obama, who vowed to change the tone in Washington, has lashed out at Republicans this month. Speaking on Tuesday night in New York City to donors to the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Obama said he didn’t have sympathy for those “sitting on the sidelines and rooting for failure.”

He touted a new DNC campaign that invites Republicans to “grab a mop” and help clean up what Democrats say is a mess created by the George W. Bush administration.

“I don’t mind cleaning up the mess that some other folks made — that’s what I signed up to do,” Obama said. “But while I’m there mopping the floor I don’t want someone saying, ‘You’re not mopping fast enough’ or ‘You’re not holding the mop the right way.’ Grab a mop! Why don’t you help clean up?”

But with the public health insurance option in doubt and many Democrats openly criticizing Obama’s refusal to state more clearly what he wants to see in a healthcare bill, the president told Democrats Tuesday night that “it’s time for us to make sure we finish the job here.”

As shouts of “single-payer” and “public option” could be heard in the crowd, Obama got a glimpse of what he’ll be hearing from liberal Democrats in Congress in the days and weeks ahead.

The president acknowledged that “there are going to be some disagreements and details to work out, but to the Democrats, I want to say to you, let’s make sure that we keep our eye on the prize.”

The president even went as far as to defend Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) healthcare bill, which liberal Democrats have derided because it lacks a public option.

Acknowledging liberal disdain for the bill, the president said that of the five bills being merged, “the one you least like” would still provide healthcare for 29 million Americans, prevent insurance companies from refusing coverage because of pre-existing conditions and set up a health insurance exchange.

While Obama singled out Baucus’s bill, one administration official cautioned that the comments did not represent an endorsement of that legislation over the other four committee-approved bills. The official added that the White House press for votes has not started.

But “there will come a time,” after there is final legislation, when the president will go to work and “implore” Democrats to get behind the bill, the official said.

“There are negotiations taking place,” Obama said Tuesday. “And we’ve got people who are engaging even if they don’t want to engage, because they’re starting to realize it’s not a matter of whether, it’s a matter of when.”

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White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday that the president was talking to all Democrats in his remarks Tuesday night, including those in Congress.

“Obviously, we’re getting to a point in this process where we’re out of committees and where we’re getting to a larger playing field and the president wants to make sure that everybody’s concerns are heard,” Gibbs said. “But [he] also believes that many of those concerns are addressed by what’s in the legislation.”

Congressional Democratic leaders have been trying for months to achieve unity within their own ranks.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faced a revolt from centrist Blue Dog Democrats this summer, forcing her to break her pledge to Obama that she would pass a bill before August. Pelosi and the House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) made concessions to the centrists on issues such as cost-cutting and the public option, which provoked intense blowback from the same liberal camp Obama must mollify. In the intervening months, Pelosi has kept a relentless schedule of meetings with the different factions and appears poised to favor the liberals in the bill that ultimately hits the House floor.

That strategy, however, sets up showdown with the more centrist Senate.

Reid is in the process of merging the two bills into a product he believes can attract 60 votes, and what to do about the public option is one of the toughest questions he has to answer. Reid must win over skeptical centrist Democrats while not alienating the majority of Senate Democrats who support the public option. Further complicating Reid’s strategy is his — and Obama’s — keen desire to retain the support of Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), who voted for the Finance Committee bill.

Obama has expressed frustration that despite meeting with GOP lawmakers throughout this year and speaking out on behalf of their ideas, an overwhelming amount of Republicans are opposing Democratic healthcare reform bills.

Republicans have praised Obama for talking about their ideas, such as medical malpractice reform, but note that Democrats on Capitol Hill are not putting the GOP proposals into legislation.

In advance of final legislation, the White House is asking its senior advisers to make yet another push for reform, some in front of decidedly liberal audiences.

Next week, Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, and Peter Orszag, Office of Management and Budget director, will speak at a forum hosted by The New Republic; Orszag will also address a Health Affairs forum at the National Press Club; Christina Romer, chairwoman of the president’s council of economic advisers, will address the Center for American Progress; and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett will discuss healthcare with seniors at an AARP event in Las Vegas.