- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The White House on Tuesday launched a full offensive to regain control of the health care debate, wooing conservative Democrats with promises of cost cutting and attempting to paint Republican critics as attack dogs blocking change.

President Obama is scheduled to hold a prime-time news conference Wednesday, as polls suggest he is losing ground on the issue. Republicans are exploiting fears about the state of the budget and the economy to slow the momentum on Capitol Hill.

Fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats huddled with Mr. Obama for more than an hour Tuesday at the White House and told reporters that the president promised them that the bill he signs will not expand the federal deficit over the long term.

Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas, chairman of the Blue Dogs, said his group has 10 major concerns and is waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to review the main House Democratic reform blueprint before agreeing to support the plan.

Many Republicans, sensing growing doubts about the complex reform plans under consideration, have stepped up their opposition. Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, was personally rebuked by Mr. Obama after he predicted last week that health care reform would be the president’s “Waterloo.”

Mr. DeMint was not backing down Tuesday.

“The biggest obstacles to President Obama’s $2 trillion government takeover of health care are Democrats, the American people and the facts,” he said in a statement provided to The Washington Times.

Mr. Obama’s lobbying also coincided with a day of hard bargaining in the Senate Finance Committee as members try to hammer out their version of the bill.

Mr. Ross called the White House private meeting “productive” but said no final decisions were reached because moderate Democrats moderates remain worried about costs.

Voters “want us to squeeze every ounce of savings that we can out of the current system. That’s what we’re demanding.” Mr. Ross said.

Mr. Obama pushed back against fears that a failure in the House and Senate to meet an August deadline to pass companion bills would kill reform, insisting that no one will remember the nitty-gritty negotiating details.

“When we do pass this bill, history won’t record the demands for endless delay or endless debates in the news cycle. It will record the hard work done by the members of Congress to pass the bill, and the fact that the people who sent us here to Washington insisted upon change,” he said.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, told reporters that the August deadline may not be met. Other House members have suggested that they want to see the Senate bill before they move forward.

Administration officials and allied outside political groups turned up the heat on Republicans.

On Tuesday, MoveOn.org, a liberal advocacy group which helps raise money for Senate Democrats and the Democratic National Committee, highlighted Mr. DeMint’s Waterloo analogy.

“Republicans want to see health care reform fail,” a new DNC ad charged, while MoveOn.org asked for $35 donations to fight Republican “scare tactics.”

Without calling out Republicans by party label, Mr. Obama on Tuesday said those who want to block reform are using a “familiar Washington script.”

“I understand that some will try to delay action until the special interests can kill it, while others will simply focus on scoring political points,” he said. “Or, we can come together and insist that this time it will be different.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said many Republicans are working with Democrats on reform.

Mr. Gibbs said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, suggested that he wouldn’t have used the same words as Mr. DeMint.

“I think that’s maybe an admission that the message got a little off the rails about playing political games,” he said.

On Tuesday, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, told reporters that Mr. Obama had assured the Blue Dogs that “the legislation he signs will have to be deficit neutral to hold down the costs in the future.”

Mr. Ross said the president pushed specific goals for the health care plan: that it not enlarge the federal budget deficit, that it contain costs and reduce health care inflation and that it cover as many people as possible under affordable, widely available plans.

“We share all those principles, all those concerns,” Mr. Ross said.

Mr. Waxman, struggling to get the House Democratic plan through his committee, has twice delayed a markup session. Across the Rotunda, the Senate Finance Committee’s group of six negotiators continued meetings nearly all day Tuesday, reporting tentative agreement on four of about a dozen key issues but planning to return to the discussions Wednesday.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said the group was making progress, but Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said the negotiators would not release details until agreement is reached on the entire plan.

“We’re in the very early stages of the process here,” Mr. Baucus said. “On the other hand, if we’re going to go public, we want to make sure that it’s defensible.”

Mr. Baucus said he ended the day with a call to Mr. Obama that he labeled “constructive” and noted the president was pleased with progress.

Once the group of six - three Republicans, three Democrats - has agreed to a plan, it is likely to pass through the markup process quickly.

But Democratic lawmakers are divided on how to pay for the reform bill. The House bill would tax individuals making more than $280,000, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, suggested this week that she’d like that bar raised to $500,000.

The Senate Finance Committee would rather put a new tax on employer-provided health care benefits, a move Mr. Obama and many House Democrats oppose.

Jennifer Haberkorn and Amanda Carpenter contributed to this report.

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