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Obama presses 16 Democrats wavering on health care

House moderates report his vow to improve bill later

By Alan Fram
Associated Press / March 5, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Support from his own party in doubt, President Obama summoned more than a dozen House Democrats to the White House yesterday, pleading that they put aside their qualms, seize a historic moment, and vote for his massive health care overhaul.

It’s the opportunity of a generation, he told them - and a chance to revive the party’s agenda after his rough first year as president.

In back-to-back meetings in the Oval Office and Roosevelt Room, Obama urged uneasy rank-and-file moderates and progressives to focus on the positives rather than their deep disappointment with parts of the bill. The lawmakers said Obama assured them the legislation was merely the first step, and he promised to work with them to improve its provisions.

“The president very pointedly talked about how important this is historically, how he needs our help,’’ said Representative Raul Grijalva. Obama told them that “this is an opportunity, it’ll give us momentum’’ on other issues, the Arizona Democrat said.

Cranking up the pressure, congressional leaders said they are hoping for votes on the legislation in two or three weeks.

Robert Gibbs, White House spokesman, told reporters he believes the House is on schedule to approve the landmark legislation by March 18, when the president leaves for an Asian trip.

Concerned about fellow Democrats’ trepidation about a legislative drive that has garnered only modest public support, House leaders expressed optimism but hardly certainty that they would nail down enough support by then. Democrats have repeatedly missed self-imposed deadlines for moving the legislation.

Obama’s revved-up personal involvement, along with the cautious tone of congressional leaders’ forecasts, illustrated the uncertainty still facing the president’s yearlong drive to push his signature initiative through Congress. The outcome will affect all Americans, because the changes touch on the ways nearly everyone receives and pays for health care. Not passing an overhaul would leave in place a system that many find lacking.

Under the current strategy, Democratic leaders want Congress to send Obama the nearly $1 trillion health overhaul the Senate passed in December, plus a separate bill making changes that House Democrats want. There is no decision yet on what that second measure will look like.

Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat who was among 16 lawmakers who met with the president yesterday, said Obama told them he understands the shortcomings of the package under consideration.

“He thinks this approach is the way it’s going to get done,’’ said Lee, who heads the Congressional Black Caucus.

“He said this is the first step, a foundation that we can build upon. He made a commitment to work with us on all the issues that are outstanding, and there are many,’’ including a desire by liberal Democrats for government-run health plans. That idea is opposed by moderate Democrats and nearly all Republicans.