Obama suggests Republicans could have a role in health-care bill

President Obama implored Senate Democrats on Wednesday to stay aggressive in pushing their agenda despite the loss of one vital seat, saying: "We still have to lead."
By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010

President Obama urged congressional Democrats on Wednesday "to finish the job on health care," but amid tentative signs of bipartisan outreach on Capitol Hill, he suggested that Republicans could be enlisted to play at least some role in negotiating a final bill.

For two weeks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have struggled for a way to salvage health-care legislation that had appeared on the verge of final passage until a special election in Massachusetts deprived Democrats of their filibuster-proof Senate majority.

Reid and Pelosi have yet to agree on a plan, and many Democrats are irritated that the protracted haggling over health-care reform is overshadowing progress on other legislation, including an $81 billion job-creation bill that Senate leaders plan to announce Thursday. The dispute has created tension between Democrats in the House and in the Senate and has revealed increasing frustration within the party toward Obama, who pushed Congress to produce a series of monumental bills last year but has not signed any of them into law.

In the coming days, Reid and Pelosi are expected to confer with the president to determine whether Democrats can pass the existing health-care bill or will be forced to start anew.

Speaking to Senate Democrats at their retreat Wednesday morning, Obama brushed aside calls from party moderates to shelve health-care reform at least until after the November midterm elections.

"We've got to finish the job, even though it's hard," he told the senators. But Democrats also took note when Obama described a process for completing the bill that would take place "in an open way, in a transparent way, in a spirit that says to our political opponents that we welcome their ideas." That description bore little resemblance to the backroom negotiations now underway between Reid and Pelosi.

If Democrats adhere to his guidelines, Obama said, "politics in 2010 will take care of themselves."

House leaders are attempting to work out a plan to use special budget rules to fix the Senate health-care bill, a strategy that would protect it from a GOP filibuster. So far, however, Reid has been unable to identify compromise language that could win 51 Democratic votes. House Democrats also are pushing for major changes to the Senate bill, including the elimination of its main new revenue source, an excise tax on high-value insurance plans.

"We're waiting for the Senate to come back to us to say, 'This is what we can do,' " said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

If Pelosi and Reid can't reach agreement, Democratic lawmakers said, they will explore alternative approaches, including passing smaller bills to address problems in the health-care system or attempting to write consensus legislation with Republicans.

What should Obama do?

One question Democratic lawmakers struggle with is precisely what role they want Obama to play. On one hand, they are eager for him to hit the stump and sell the party's ambitious agenda to a skeptical public. But they also would prefer that the president become more deeply involved in policy negotiations.

"Go out and talk to the unemployed. Go out and talk to small businesses," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), president of the freshman Democratic class. At the same time, Connolly cautioned that Obama had been "too much the cerebral, cool, detached" president, and needs to weigh in forcefully to break the logjam over health-care reform and other issues. "He needs to recalibrate what the proper balance is moving forward," Connolly said.

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