Obama suggests extending debate as way to pass health reform

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010; A04

President Obama sketched out an alternative approach to passing health-care legislation that would enlist Republicans and potentially extend debate into the spring, a strategy seemingly in conflict with the fast-track talks among Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Speaking to members of the Democratic National Committee on Thursday night, Obama vowed to continue his year-long quest to overhaul the nation's health-care system, to curb rising costs and extend coverage to millions of families and individuals who don't have it.

But he suggested a different way forward than the partisan, closed-door dealmaking underway between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

"What I'd like to do is have a meeting whereby I'm sitting with the Republicans, sitting with the Democrats, sitting with health-care experts, and let's just go through these bills -- their ideas, our ideas -- let's walk through them in a methodical way so that the American people can see and compare what makes the most sense," Obama told DNC members.

Democrats spent most of 2009 crafting comprehensive bills and were on the verge of agreeing to final legislation when the party lost its filibuster-proof Senate supermajority in last month's Massachusetts special election. Many moderate Democrats, especially in the Senate, would just as soon shelve health-care reform until after the November midterm elections. But liberals are just as determined to press ahead.

After the Massachusetts loss, Reid and Pelosi embarked on an effort to modify the Senate bill that passed on Christmas Eve so it can pass the House. The unusual maneuver would rely on special budget rules that would allow the package of revisions -- rather than a whole new bill -- to clear the Senate on a simple-majority vote. After the fixes cleared the House, the House could approve the Senate bill and send it to Obama.

But given the public's dim view of health-care reform, lining up 51 Senate Democrats even to approve fairly uncontroversial fixes could prove impossible. "We are not picking up votes. We are losing votes," said a senior Senate Democratic aide.

Speaking to DNC members on Friday, Pelosi was adamant that the current effort remain on track. "I have seen grown men cry over this health-care issue," she said. "We must pass this reform. The status quo is totally unsustainable."

But aides involved in the Reid-Pelosi effort said numerous procedural problems remain unresolved. They said Reid is worried that Senate rules would allow Republicans to offer unlimited amendments to the revisions package, potentially tying up the floor for weeks.

Senior Democrats who were briefed about a Thursday meeting between Pelosi, Reid and Obama at the White House said Pelosi protested any move to delay health care. But the Senate has already turned its attention to a jobs bill, and Congress will recess starting Feb. 15.

Unless Reid can lock down 51 votes, Democrats will be forced to explore other avenues, possibly involving smaller, more targeted bills. The House is expected to vote next week on separate legislation that would revoke the federal antitrust exemption for health insurers, a provision that had been included in the House version of the overhaul bill but that Reid omitted from the Senate version at the behest of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

The main sponsors of the House bill are Reps. Tom Perriello (Va.) and Betsy Markey (Colo.), both freshmen from swing districts. Perriello predicted that the legislation, which would allow the federal government to investigate price-fixing allegations, would receive broad support. "Monopolies are not a good idea," he told reporters.

Under the approach Obama described, the parties would convene in a public forum to identify areas of agreement that could form the foundations of a new bill. Those provisions would likely include insurance reforms to end discriminatory coverage practices and incentives for small businesses to provide affordable coverage to their employees.

A forum-like setting also would allow Obama to make good on his campaign pledge to negotiate health-care legislation on C-SPAN, rather than in private offices. His bet is that once voters are able to compare Democratic and Republican health-care proposals, they will view Democratic ideas more favorably.

The president also told DNC members he was in not in a hurry. "I think we should be very deliberate, take our time," he said. But Obama added, "The key is to not let the moment slip away."

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