- The Washington Times - Monday, December 7, 2009

President Obama told Senate Democrats in a Sunday afternoon pep talk on Capitol Hill that passing a health care overhaul bill would be both good politics and good policy, urging them to make history by overcoming differences on the public option and other contentious parts of the legislation.

Mr. Obama met with Democrats for about 45 minutes as the lawmakers geared up for an important week in which many of the most contentious issues in the health care reform debate, such as abortion, will face up-or-down amendment votes as soon as Monday.

Lawmakers met in a rare weekend session to vote on amendments and allow Democrats time to work out a compromise within their own ranks on how to structure their public insurance plan.

“Passing this, voting for cloture … is certainly going to help politically but, most important, going to help with policy,” Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said of the president’s message.

Several moderate Democrats up for re-election in 2010 have been leery of supporting the legislation or the procedural votes required to pass it.

“He said in essence, if we don’t hang together with 60 of us, we’re going to hang separately,” said Sen. Roland W. Burris, Illinois Democrat.

Mr. Obama’s visit was not a negotiating session and he did not spell out how senators should settle their differences, several lawmakers in the room said. The president has not been specific on what policies he wants in the legislation, outside of broad guidelines that it be deficit-neutral, keep insurance companies honest and provide access to all Americans.

“He urged us to get the job done and said he’s ready to help us, pick up the phone and call any time we need him,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and Senate majority whip.

Mr. Obama was accompanied on the trip by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., health care “czar” Nancy-Ann DeParle, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former senator. Mr. Obama did not take questions from lawmakers.

“That wasn’t a negotiation,” Mr. Obama said to reporters as he left the meeting. “It was a pep talk.”

Republicans said the fact that they weren’t invited to the Democrat-only meeting organized by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is a sign of the partisan undertones of the health care debate.

“There was no interest in drafting a proposal that was in the political middle,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

A group of 10 moderate and liberal Democrats is trying to close in on a compromise on how to structure the Senate public insurance plan. Liberals favor a government-run public insurance plan with a chance for states to opt out, as is currently written in the bill. But moderate Democrats, leery of giving government too large a role in health care, have balked.

Alternatives making their way around Capitol Hill include proposals to direct the Office of Personnel Management, the agency that handles federal employees’ health care plans, to create a nonprofit plan, and to establish the government-run plan in states where insurance competition is low.

“There’s so many different ideas floating around out there,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat and one of the moderates opposed to the federal public plan.

On Sunday’s talk shows, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said the public option would be phased in gradually and denied that the overall bill was “incremental,” saying the need is still urgent.

“It goes into effect slowly. The first year, some small-business tax credits go into effect. That’s 2010. And those people in this country that have no coverage because they’re denied for pre-existing conditions would be able to buy insurance. I think that is one big step forward,” she said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“The rest of it goes into effect over a few years. It’s not until 2014 that the exchanges would go into effect and a public option. We have the opportunity to look at it carefully in the next couple of years. Watch how it goes into effect, and if necessary, make some changes. But if we miss this opportunity to pass this bill, it’s lost,” Mrs. Feinstein said.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said the public already has rejected the bill.

“I can’t tell you how strongly public opinion is expressed to me, through phone calls and letters and when I go back home to visit with people, I get one simple message: Stop this health care bill. And you see it in public opinion surveys. One of the most recent surveys shows the support for it down by 18 points. Among independent voters, more than 3-to-1, it is opposed,” he told CNN. “So what I hope is that we will listen to our constituents.”

Meanwhile Sunday, an amendment to limit the tax deductions on the salaries of top executives at insurance companies failed by a vote of 56-42, short of the 60 votes required. The proposal from Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Arkansas Democrat, would have put the cap at $400,000.

Lawmakers also voted down an amendment introduced by Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, to limit attorneys’ fees in medical malpractice cases. Malpractice reform has been one of the Republicans’ key issues in the health care debate, but the measure failed by a vote of 32-66.

Lawmakers still have dozens of amendments outstanding.

One of the most controversial, a proposal to limit access to abortion in the insurance provided through the exchanges, could come up for a vote as soon as Monday. The proposal, from Mr. Nelson, is similar to the limitations inserted into the House health care bill by Rep. Bart Stupak, Michigan Democrat.

c Matt Mosk and Sean Lengell contributed to this report.

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