Dems find what Obama wants on healthcare still anything but clear

Democrats hope President Barack Obama will use his multiple Sunday show appearances to clarify his demands for healthcare reform.

The arrival of the Senate Finance Committee’s long-awaited healthcare bill only exacerbated the difference between Democrats who want a public option to compete with the private insurance industry and those who want to foster competition and savings through less intrusive means.

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And both sides point to Obama’s address to the joint session of Congress to claim the president shares their opinion.

Now they’re watching the president for clarification. But lawmakers’ television sets may not be the best option for Obama. Some senior leadership aides say the president’s voice needs to be heard the loudest and clearest on Capitol Hill.

“The president’s work is far, far from done down here,” a Democratic leadership aide said.

And House leaders hinted they will remain in a holding pattern when it comes to combining their three healthcare bills until the White House clears the air.

“I do believe we’re at the point of the legislative process now, or we’re quickly going to arrive there, where the president of the United States is going to have to come down to Capitol Hill and say to individual members ‘Here’s why we need an element like a public option in the plan,’” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.).

Part of the problem, Weiner said, is that instead of being a declarative statement, Obama’s speech was the equivalent of an inkblot test.

“You know, everyone had an opportunity to see in it a little of what they wanted,” Weiner said. “Only with true, muscular presidential leadership can we get people who have disparate views on this together under one tent.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) used the president’s address to claim his bill delivered just what Obama asked for.

“This is basically within the framework that President Obama outlined in his [Congressional] address,” Baucus said.

The Blue Dog Coalition – the 52-strong block of fiscally conservative House Democrats – quickly praised the Baucus bill.  And they, too, cited Obama’s vision – twice – as their reason for supporting the Finance Chairman’s plan.

“The draft released by Chairman Baucus addresses two central goals of the Blue Dog Coalition and the Administration:  It is deficit neutral, and it takes real steps to bring down the cost of health care over the long term,” said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sadlin (D-S.D.), a leader of Blue Dog Coalition, in a statement. “Meeting these standards, also set forth by the president, is critical to reining in deficits and protecting our economy for future generations of Americans.”

But when liberal Democrats criticized Baucus’s bill, they argued it failed to live up Obama’s goals as they heard his speech to Congress.

“I don’t see it as the product that the president necessarily wants,” Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said of the Baucus bill. “I think all indications are that a public option or something like it performs the function of accountability, competition, cost containment.  And I don’t see that in this product.”

Even a week-and-a-half after Obama’s address – and after the president’s senior political advisor, David Alexrod, was dispatched to both the Senate and the House to clear up any misunderstandings – the president’s message was still muddled, and was still being monopolized by both sides.

After Baucus and the White House signaled their willingness to see the Finance bill amended, perhaps considerably, liberal Democrats began to feel as though their argument was winning out, and that a public option was therefore inevitable.

But that only prompted the Blue Dogs to remind Obama about his stated willingness to consider other options, including the co-ops at the heart of the Baucus bill.

"We appreciate your openness to alternative ideas on how to achieve more choice and competition in the insurance market," the Blue Dog leadership wrote Obama on Wednesday, the day the Baucus bill was unveiled. "Too much of the debate has focused on this single issue, and while an important issue to address, we cannot let our disagreements over it stand in the way of the larger goal of enacting healthcare reform."