Tough talk comes after Obama exits

Senate Democrats held back from asking President Barack Obama about healthcare reform during a carefully scripted question-and-answer session in front of television cameras.

With the cameras rolling, a group of senators selected in advance by the Democratic leadership asked questions about such topics as partisan gridlock and GOP obstruction.

ADVERTISEMENT
But once the president left and reporters were escorted out of the room, senators pressed White House officials about healthcare reform, according to those at the meeting.

Democrats expressed their frustration with the lack of a clear plan for passing healthcare reform, according to one person in the room.

One Democratic senator even grew heated in his remarks, according to the source.

“It wasn’t a discussion about how to get from Point A to Point B; it was a discussion about the lack of a plan to get from Point A to Point B,” said a person who attended the meeting. “Many of the members were frustrated, but one person really expressed his frustration.”

Senators did not want to press Obama on healthcare reform in front of television cameras for fear of putting him in an awkward spot.

“There was a vigorous discussion about that afterward with some of his top advisers and others,” Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) said regarding the healthcare discussion.

“I think people were probably aware that there was no easy answer and this is being broadcast on live national television and didn’t want to put him on the spot,” Bayh said.

Democratic leaders planned their question time with Obama well in advance, discussing during a meeting earlier in the week who would get to ask questions.

“In the leadership meeting we talked about it,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who was called on for a question and is among the most endangered Democratic senators up for reelection this year. “I think the majority leader did take a list early on.”

Obama met with the senators at a Democratic retreat held Wednesday at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue. He took several questions from lawmakers facing tough reelections, such as Sens. Lincoln, Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.).

During his introductory remarks, the president urged lawmakers not to give up on healthcare reform.

“And so as we think about moving forward, I hope we don’t lose sight of why we’re here. We’ve got to finish the job on healthcare,” Obama said.

But lawmakers said after the meeting that White House officials did not provide any clear roadmap.

Democratic leaders have discussed a complicated plan that would have the Senate use special budgetary rules known as reconciliation to pass changes to the healthcare legislation — which the chamber passed last year — with only 51 votes.

The auxiliary bill would solve an impasse with House Democrats, who have refused to pass the Senate healthcare bill without substantial changes.

But some Democrats in the Senate have balked at using reconciliation rules to pass healthcare reform.

ADVERTISEMENT
“I’m not for using reconciliation for healthcare — I’m just not.” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). “If we couldn’t get a bill through the Congress that had broad support, I said we shouldn’t have a bill.”

Another Democratic senator said that using reconciliation to pass healthcare reform in the next few months would be very difficult and that the best solution is for the House to pass the Senate bill.

During their televised time with the president, Democrats chose to focus on other issues.

Lincoln asked Obama if he would be willing to push back against liberals and “look for that common ground that we need to work with Republicans.”

Obama said he would attempt to convince his party’s left wing to take a less ideological approach to economic challenges.

“We’ve got to make sure that our party understands that, like it or not, we have to have a financial system that is healthy and functioning, so we can’t be demonizing every bank out there,” Obama said. “We’ve got to be the party of business, small business and large business, because they produce jobs.”


Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) asked about retooling the nation’s manufacturing sector to become a world leader in clean- and renewable-energy technology.

Obama noted that China threatened to eclipse the U.S. in clean-energy expertise.

“I continue to believe, and I’m not alone in this, that the country that figures out most rapidly new forms of energy and can commercialize new ideas is going to lead the 21st-century economy,” Obama said to applause. “I think that is our growth model.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Obama was not to blame for the setbacks Democrats suffered on healthcare reform and in the Massachusetts special election last month, which cost the party its filibuster-proof Senate majority.

Baucus said the backlash of voters in Massachusetts, which elected a Republican to the Senate for the first time in more than three decades, was due to the fact that “people are financially in tough shape.”