Pep talk leaves Dems confident on clunkers, healthcare

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that the Senate will extend the "cash for clunkers" program, as requested by the president, before leaving for the August recess.

After having lunch with President Barack Obama for more than two hours on Tuesday and emerging "ready to take on the world," Senate Democrats also said they will complete and pass healthcare reform legislation before the end of the year.

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The $1 billion allocated for the auto trade-in program was expected to last until the fall, but auto dealers reported late last week that consumer interest was rapidly draining the program of funds.

The bill that the House raced to pass Friday before leaving for recess directs the Obama administration to transfer $2 billion to the "cash for clunkers" program from portions of the economic stimulus package yet to be expended.

Even though some senators have said they would oppose the $2 billion extension for fiscal and environmental reasons, Reid said Tuesday he has the votes to pass it.

With Obama's August healthcare deadline dead and buried, Democratic senators said that even though the reconciliation process, which would negate the need for Republican support, is still on the table, they are continuing to push for a bipartisan bill.

Reid said "if there's any way humanly possible" to get a bipartisan bill, then Democrats will pursue that avenue.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), whose committee is the only one of five that hasn't passed a bill, said he did not get any specific pressure from Obama.

"Just the opposite," Baucus said, adding that the president was instead "very thankful" for the senator's leadership as they agree they need to pass something this year.

Reid said there was "absolute unity in the caucus" that they will pass a bill before the end of the year.

"In spite of the loud, shrill voices trying to interrupt town hall meetings and just throw a monkey wrench in everything, we're going to continue to be positive and work hard," Reid said.

Reid stressed that the bill in the finance committee and the one that passed Sen. Chris Dodd's (D-Conn.) Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee are "80 percent" the same.

Dodd noted that the month the Senate will be in recess, 500,000 Americans will lose their healthcare.

Because of that, Dodd said, "We need to come back with a renewed sense of purpose."

Reid said the lunch, which was peppered with standing ovations for Obama, was like a "pep talk" from a coach that leaves players ready to "take on the world."

"We're ready to take on the world," the majority leader said.

For his part, the president paid another surprise visit to the White House press briefing room shortly after the lunch, this time to deliver cupcakes and wish a happy birthday to longtime White House reporter Helen Thomas, who turned 89 on Tuesday. Obama's 48th birthday was the same day.

After Thomas blew out her candles, Obama joked that the birthday buddies shared a common wish: "She said she hopes for a real healthcare reform bill."