By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010; A04
An aide to President Obama urged lawmakers on Thursday to make substantial progress on his health-care plan before he leaves on a foreign trip in mid-March, as Obama summoned wavering House Democrats to the White House for a private sales pitch.
The president also made a surprise visit to insurance company chief executives, brandishing a letter from a cancer patient as he admonished them about what he has called excessive rate increases.
Taken together, the actions reflected the sense of urgency inside the West Wing for Congress to brush aside legislative delays and election-year politics and pass the president's top domestic priority.
"I'd describe the president as being very focused on this goal," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. "He . . . thinks we're only a couple of weeks away from getting this done."
Gibbs said on MSNBC the president expects to "get something done" by March 18, when Obama leaves for travel to Indonesia, Guam and Australia. Later, Gibbs said he thinks the House is on track to approve the Senate-passed health bill by that date, though action on a "reconciliation" bill to make adjustments could take somewhat longer.
"I said this morning that we believe the House can act by the time the president leaves for his trip on March 18th," Gibbs said. "I'm not saying that the president will sign fully into law everything that has to be done before going to Indonesia and Australia, no."
At the White House, Obama pressed his case for the legislation in separate sessions with House progressives and another with members of the more moderate New Democrat Coalition.
Senior Democratic aides said Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) hopes to unveil the reconciliation bill early next week. The process could then unfold over the next two weeks, although the final phase in the Senate could easily consume a week beyond that. The Republican strategy is to force multiple votes, possibly stretching out over several days.
Despite the procedural hurdles ahead, Democrats said they are increasingly optimistic about the bill's prospects. Liberal House members emerged from the meeting with Obama saying they are ready to accept major concessions, including the loss of the public option, in exchange for passing a bill.
But the most theatrical moment of the day came when Obama made an unannounced appearance at a White House meeting between the insurance executives and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Obama has made a habit of denouncing recent rate increases by major insurance companies, and he read to them a letter from a cancer patient who had written to the president: "I need your Health reform bill to help me!!! I simply can no longer afford to pay for my health care costs!!"
Gibbs said the president pointed to the letter from Natoma A. Canfield of Medina, Ohio, in urging insurers not to stand in the way of his health-care initiative. He said the president will carry the letter with him to events in the next two weeks "to remind everyone what's at stake with the final push for health-care reform and what's -- what happens if we walk away."
Insurance company executives at the meeting played down the emotional impact of the letter and called the meeting with Sebelius and Obama constructive.
"The conversation today behind closed doors did not feel like it was a vilified industry being chastised by the president or the secretary," Cigna Chief Executive David Cordani said in an interview after the meeting.
But Cordani said the executives defended the rise in premiums, pointing to increases in the underlying cost of care as well as the deteriorating health of the American public, he said.
Cordani added that he objects to the president's plan, saying it would "accelerate some unsustainable outcomes and increase costs on a systemwide basis."
House Democrats got one bit of good news in their push to pass reform when Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition who is retiring this year, released a statement Thursday suggesting the cost-containment measures that Obama proposed this week to appeal to Republicans had made him more favorable to the bill. Gordon, who voted against the House bill in November, did not say he would vote for the current bill, but said in a statement that he was "pleased to see the discussion moving in a more fiscally responsible direction now."
Republicans, however, also put a "no" vote back on the table Wednesday. Rep. Nathan Deal, who had planned to resign to pursue a bid for governor in Georgia, said he would delay his departure until after casting a vote against the Democrats' bill.
Staff writers Shailagh Murray and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.