Liberals grill Obama on health reform

House liberals pressed President Barack Obama on healthcare reform Thursday and left the White House without making any commitments to vote for the final bill.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Hill that liberals challenged Obama on the lack of a public health insurance option and other provisions in the Senate bill the president has endorsed.

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Lee said Obama said he still "strongly supports" a public option, but "the votes aren't there."

But, she said, Obama said the current healthcare legislation is a "foundation," adding he "would work with us on the next effort."

"I am going to keep hop[ing] for a public option," Lee said. "And he said he's going to work with us."

Lee did say, however, that the president was "noncommittal" about pushing for a public option in the future.

The meeting between the members and the president comes as the White House has begun a full-on push to get healthcare legislation passed in the coming weeks, with a stated goal of House passage of the Senate-passed bill by March 18. The Senate measure will go under some changes through the reconciliation process.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Thursday that the president wants to see House passage before Obama leaves for a trip to Indonesia and Australia on March 18. Gibbs said the White House is "making one final push" to get that done.

But Lee said lawmakers present at the White House meeting Thursday afternoon said they have serious concerns about the Senate-passed measure.

Lee said the discussion was "candid" and the president listened to their concerns. After the meeting, she said, "I don't think there was consensus on anything."

Most liberals are expected to vote for the final bill. Even though many on the left complained about the House healthcare bill, only one liberal — Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) — voted no last November.

Other House Democratic members who attended the 1:30 p.m. meeting with Obama included Reps. Kucinich, Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), among others.

At 2:30 p.m., Obama met with Democrats who lean more toward the middle, including Reps. Jason Altmire (Pa.), Melissa Bean (Ill.), Lois Capps (Calif.), Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), Ron Kind (Wis.), Allyson Schwartz (Pa.) and Adam Smith (Wash.). Of these lawmakers, only Altmire voted no against the House-passed bill. 

Schwartz told The Hill on Thursday afternoon that the president spoke "very plainly, very directly" and not only urged the members to vote for the final bill, but to rally support for it.

Obama indicated lawmakers need to be pragmatic, noting that he didn't get everything he wanted in the measure, according to the Pennsylvania Democrat.

Obama is seeking to foster unity among congressional Democrats, knowing few, if any, Republicans will back his healthcare reform effort.

Bob Cusack contributed to this article, which was updated at 6:12 p.m.