Obama meets Dems without addressing divisive issues; negotiations continue

President Barack Obama gave Senate Democrats a "pep talk" on healthcare Sunday, telling them they stood to make history if they passed a bill expanding healthcare coverage to millions of Americans.

Obama, during a rare Sunday Democratic caucus in the Senate, said that the healthcare reform bill, which seeks to provide coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, is "the most important social legislation since Social Security," according to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

Obama told reporters that the meeting was a "pep talk," not a negotiation.

Obama didn't take questions from the senators or mention the two issues now dividing Senate Democrats and preventing passage of the bill: a government-run insurance plan and restrictions on federal funds for abortion. But Democrats said that Obama's remarks gave them a boost as they try to strike compromises to get the 60 votes needed to pass the bill.

"He reminded us why we're here, he reminded us why we run for office and he reminded us how many people are counting on us to come through," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Senate Democrats leaving the meeting expressed confidence that they would eventually pass a bill that would help Americans and would help Democrats politically as they enter into a crucial mid-term election year.

If they passed the bill, Democrats would be "rewarded in '10, and in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 and 40," Baucus said. "Nothing's more important."

Obama noted the progress they had made together on healthcare reform, his top legislative priority for most of his 11-month presidency, and on the economy, now growing after a two-year recession and gaining nearly as many jobs as it's losing, senators said after the meeting.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said that Obama's message was most effective when he was "putting into context how important [the healthcare bill] was to the economy and what this means in terms of how people judge this Congress and what happens to us."

Obama said that despite their progress, Democrats should pass healthcare to show Americans that they can tackle big problems, Casey said.

"We tend to forget we've been about as productive a Congress as there's been in a long time, but we've got to get this done to demonstrate that we can get something this substantial done," Casey said.

Baucus said that Democrats would be able to get the 60 votes to invoke cloture on the bill to end debate and eventually pass it. He predicted that would happen within a week or two.

Senate Democratic leaders along with a core group of five centrist and five liberal Democrats have been locked in negotiations over the public option since Friday. Democrats said they're considering a number of compromises on the public option, including one that would put the independent Office of Personnel Management in charge of the new insurance plan instead of the Health and Human Services Department.

Negotiations lasted until 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with senators at one point dining on takeout Chinese food.

"We have had a really intense three hours of discussion and we are not there yet by any stretch of the imagination, but we're finding a good deal of give and take that leads to common ground," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.

Schumer and the members of the group didn't give any specifics about their talks. But Schumer said that the group found "a good deal of common ground" and that staffers would be working hard over the next few days on the proposals.

Schumer sought to portray a united Democratic front with talks expected to continue Monday. As he spoke to reporters, he was flanked by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), one of the biggest proponents of a strong public option, and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a public option skeptic.

But Landrieu and other centrist senators appeared less optimistic than Schumer.

Landrieu said that the group wasn't close to a deal but that she hoped for an agreement in "another a day or two."

"My good friend Sen. Schumer is always optimistic," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), another public option opponent. "Probably there is some common ground, and there's certainly some interest in finding significant common ground. It's a tall challenge to try to reach that."

Other senators spotted going in and out of the room were Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Tom Carper (Del.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Blanche Lincoln (Ark.).

Key centrist senators not involved in the talks dismissed suggestions that the Senate healthcare debate would end soon.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) told The Hill that it's not realistic to expect the bill to be finished in a week.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) again criticized the push to include a public option, saying that it would lead to a single-payer healthcare system.

"This bill has so much good in it, it does so much good," Lieberman said. "Why are you insisting on getting a foot in the door on single payer?"

The Senate will likely move sooner on divisive abortion language in the bill.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said that his amendment restricting new federal healthcare funds for abortion is likely to get a vote Tuesday. Nelson said he can't vote for the bill unless it includes that restriction, which was included in the already-passed House bill by centrist Democrats over the objections of most of the House Democratic Caucus.

While Republicans are expected to back Nelson's amendment, most Democrats are expected to oppose it. Nelson told The Hill that he wasn't sure that he would offer an alternative amendment if his initial effort doesn't get the necessary 60 votes for passage.

In the caucus meeting with the president were Vice President Joe Biden, senior White House adviser David Axelrod, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle and Phil Schiliro, the assistant to the president for legislative affairs. Obama was the only person to speak, but Biden talked one-on-one with several Democrats, Casey said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) criticized the president for meeting only with Democrats and he said that their healthcare effort was now "completely partisan."

"Democrats are trying to squeeze every single one of their members to swallow a pretty bitter pill for the American people," said McConnell, who repeated GOP suggestions that the bill will lead to higher taxes, higher insurance premiums and weaker Medicare programs.

Ben Geman contributed to this report

This story was updated at 8:05 p.m.