How Obama revived his health-care bill

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It was the Barack Obama the American public rarely sees -- irritated and wondering if he had arrived at the moment of defeat. ¶ Shortly after 6 p.m. on Jan. 19, with a political crisis about to explode, the president summoned the two top Democrats in Congress to the Oval Office for a strategy session. ¶ House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sat alongside Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the tension in the room acute.

Obama wasn't waiting for the polls to close in Massachusetts at 8 that evening. He already knew that his Democratic Party was about to suffer an embarrassing loss. In the bitterest of ironies, the Senate seat held for nearly 47 years by Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, who had been the leading voice in Congress for universal health care, was about to fall into Republican hands.

Now the president was asking members of his assembled brain trust: What were they going to do?

Although they shared Obama's desire to vastly expand the nation's health-care system, they were divided over how to salvage his signature policy proposal.

Mathematically, Scott Brown's impending victory would deny Democrats a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. With only 59 votes loosely under his control, Reid wanted the House to adopt the version of the health-care bill that had barely squeaked through the Senate on Christmas Eve.

No way, said Pelosi.

"The Senate bill is a non-starter," she said. "I can't sell that to my members."

Pelosi lectured the others about the political realities of the House: Her Democratic troops did not trust the Senate, and she would face a mutiny if she asked them to do what Reid was suggesting.

They talked over each other, round and round, repeating the arguments Obama had heard for weeks.

"Let me finish," he broke in.

This was not how the president had envisioned things. He was just one day away from celebrating his first year in office. By now, he was to have signed into law a landmark bill guaranteeing health care to every American, the broadest piece of social policy legislation since President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society.

Instead, he was confronting the very real prospect of failure on an equally grand scale.

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