By Alexander Bolton - 01/21/10 01:26 AM EST
President Barack Obama on Wednesday asked lawmakers to focus on the core elements of healthcare reform, with some interpreting his remarks as a call to scale back his top legislative priority.
“I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements in the package that people agree on,” Obama said Wednesday during an interview with ABC News, his first remarks since the stunning GOP triumph in the Massachusetts special election to fill the seat Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) held for 46 years.
The remarks left many on Capitol Hill confused, with some seeing a White House in retreat in the wake of the Democrats’ stinging defeat Tuesday.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs pushed back against the notion that Obama would now like Congress to pass a scaled-down version of healthcare reform.
“The concern is that a narrow bill addresses a narrow group of concerns, yet doesn’t make progress on all of the issues that we’ve talked about,” Gibbs said.
“Insurance reforms, a host of things that within healthcare are interconnected and have to be done as a broad package,” he added.
But later in the day, Gibbs carefully avoided a question from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer of whether a scaled-back version of the bill, which would only require 51 votes, was an option.
“Well, Wolf, what the president said clearly today was the idea that some have in ramming something through the Senate before Sen.-elect Brown was seated is not an option as far as he’s concerned. We are not going to go that route.
“A bill has already passed the Senate. So one of the options, as you mentioned earlier, is to try that legislation through the House. But again, the president’s focused on getting something done. It’s long past time to get healthcare reform passed into law and make it a reality for American families.”
Obama made his comments after Senate Democratic leaders met Wednesday morning and agreed to wait a while before deciding how to proceed on healthcare reform.
House Democrats, including Rep. Bill Delahunt (Mass.) and Majority Whip James Clyburn (S.C.), encouraged Obama to take an incremental approach to healthcare, rather than pushing a sweeping bill.
“I have been saying that from day one that we have to build a strong foundation,” said Clyburn. “I never expect everything, that this would be the one and only time we deal with healthcare reform.”
Rep. Tim Holden, a centrist Democrat from Pennsylvania, voiced support for Obama’s call to focus on the more popular elements of reform.
“I think we should scale it back dramatically,” he said.
Earlier in the day, senior Senate Democratic aides said White House officials had been pressing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) behind the scenes to take up the Senate-passed healthcare bill.
But the White House strategy seemed to soften in the face of stiff resistance from rank-and-file House Democrats. Many have criticized a range of provisions in the Senate measure, including a tax on high-cost insurance plans and less strict regulations on insurance coverage for abortions.
Seeking to quell fighting within his party, Obama in his interview with ABC News urged lawmakers to focus on the most popular parts while leaving aside controversial measures such as the tax on so-called Cadillac insurance plans.
“We know that we need insurance reform. The health insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because if we don’t, then our budgets are going to blow up,” he said.
“And we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance for their families. Those are the core, some of the core elements of this bill.”
An option the White House floated earlier in the week was for the House to pass the Senate bill, then move changes in a separate bill that would be forced through the Senate using special budget rules that require only a simple majority.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who would have authority over passing a second healthcare reform bill under reconciliation protection, said he is open to using that process for healthcare changes, but would need to see the language before backing the approach.
“I would not agree in advance to using reconciliation without understanding what that agreement entailed,” Conrad said.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the solution might be to change the party’s message by focusing on individual reforms in the massive healthcare bill.
Van Hollen said Democrats need to “make sure people understand why we’re moving forward on this.”
A senior House Democratic aide said he interpreted Obama’s comments Wednesday as a call for House lawmakers to focus on the parts of the Senate healthcare bill they support, while accepting the ones they do not.
Gibbs said the president has yet to settle on a final strategy for how to proceed on healthcare.
“A lot of those conversations are ongoing,” Gibbs said. “I don’t want to get into ... delineating, except to say there are a lot of different paths forward.
“And I think we’ll get an opportunity in the coming hours and days to — to know exactly what that path is,” Gibbs said.