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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Obama guarantees health care overhaul will pass

He has guts, and talks a good game. President Barack Obama guaranteed Thursday that his health care overhaul will win approval and said any bill he signs will have to reduce rapidly rising costs, protect consumers from insurance abuses and provide affordable choices to the uninsured — while not adding to the federal deficit.

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Obama listed those four "bullet points" as his basic requirements in response to a question from a caller to a Philadelphia-based talk radio show. Host Michael Smerconish interviewed Obama at the White House during the show and Obama took questions from several listeners.

Another caller said he sensed the administration's "knees are bucklin' a little bit" under criticism of the proposals. Obama said he was as determined as ever and "I guarantee you, Joe, we are going to get health care reform done."

Obama is struggling to regain the momentum on his top domestic priority — a comprehensive bill that would extend health coverage to nearly 50 million Americans who lack it and restrain skyrocketing costs. Opponents of the overhaul have drowned out supporters at lawmakers' town halls around the country this month, and backing for Obama's effort has slipped in opinion polls. Congressional Democratic leaders are preparing to go it alone on legislation although bipartisan negotiations continue in the Senate.

The president insisted Thursday that there has been no change in the administration's position that a government option for health insurance coverage should be considered as part of legislation to overhaul the system.

Responding to a question from Smerconish, Obama said, "The press got excited and some folks on the left got a little excited" when the administration last weekend made statements indicating that a federally run health insurance option was just one of several alternatives.

"Our position hasn't changed," he said.

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Later Thursday, he visited the Democratic National Committee headquarters for a rally designed to re-energize activists who were instrumental is his drive to the presidency.

"Winning the election is just the start," he told an audience at the DNC and thousands watching online and listening by telephone. "Victory in an election wasn't the change that we sought."

Obama said lies had spread about Democrats' plans, including claims Washington would create "death panels" or pay for health insurance for illegal immigrants.

"C'mon," a mocking Obama told the cheering crowd. "We can have a real debate because health care is hard and there are some legitimate issues that have to be sorted through and worked on."

While Obama says he's still looking for Republican support for a comprehensive health care bill, Democrats privately are preparing a one-party push, which they feel is all but inevitable.

On Wednesday, Obama urged religious leaders to back his proposals, arguing that health coverage for Americans is a "core ethical and moral obligation." Polls continued to show slippage in support for the president's approach, although respondents expressed even less confidence in Republicans' handling of health care.

Vice President Joe Biden met with health care professionals in Chicago on Thursday and planned to announce nearly $1.2 billion in grants to help hospitals transition to electronic medical records. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was joining him.

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Thursday that Obama is struggling to get a health care bill because he has been too deferential to liberals. Romney, who may challenge Obama in 2012, said on CBS' "The Early Show" that "if the president wants to get something done, he needs to put aside the extreme liberal wing of his party."

Some Democrats say a strong-arm tactic on Senate health care legislation that would negate the need for any GOP votes might be more effective than previously thought.

The legislative tactic, called "reconciliation," would allow senators to get around a bill-killing filibuster without mustering the 60 votes usually needed. Democrats control 60 of the Senate's 100 seats, but some moderate Senate Democrats have expressed reservations about Obama's plan.

Two Democrats — Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts — are seriously ill and often absent. Kennedy sent a letter Tuesday to Massachusetts leaders asking that they change state law to allow someone to be quickly appointed to his seat in Congress "should a vacancy occur."

While always contentious, reconciliation lets the Senate pass some measures with a simple majority vote. Non-budget-related items can be challenged, however, and some lawmakers say reconciliation would knock so many provisions from Obama's health care plan that the result would be "Swiss cheese."

Still, Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., warned Republicans Wednesday that reconciliation is a real option. The White House and Senate Democratic leaders still prefer a bipartisan bill, he said, but "patience is not unlimited and we are determined to get something done this year by any legislative means necessary."

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Administration officials and congressional Democrats were deeply discouraged this week when key Republican lawmakers seemed more critical than ever about various Democratic-drafted health care bills pending in the House and Senate. They said they still hope Senate Finance Committee efforts to craft a bipartisan compromise can succeed, although private remarks were more pessimistic.

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