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Obama Team Set to Rally for Health Bill

With a carefully designed timetable at risk in the Senate, President Barack Obama and his allies this week are launching a public relations blitz to bolster the case for health care reform.

Some of the events may have been planned before Obama’s health care effort ran into difficulties, such as the decision by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to delay today’s planned markup — possibly until next month — and a suggestion by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on Sunday that the votes to pass the legislation do not yet exist.

But the result will be a huge burst of health care cheerleading before Congress breaks for the July Fourth recess at the end of the week.

“I think, obviously, this is a big priority for the president,” White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said when asked whether Obama is trying to reclaim control over the health care debate. “The president believes these are extremely important issues. And the opportunity to talk to [reporters] and talk to the American people about them is important.”

White House aides are in close touch with Baucus and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who is leading the effort to craft legislation in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the absence of the ailing Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Dodd and Baucus got a public pat on the back Monday from Obama, who warmly praised their efforts.

White House aides say they are not frustrated — at least not yet — with Baucus’ failure to hold a markup today as planned.

They note that the reasons for the delay — including efforts by the chairman to include Republicans and ensure the bill does not increase the deficit — comport with Obama’s desires and that Baucus should not be blamed for attempting to follow the president’s request.

They continue to hope Baucus will move the legislation out of his committee this week and that floor consideration in the Senate and House can be completed next month, as originally planned.

Obama has typically avoided forcing legislative specifics on lawmakers, insisting instead on general principles to guide the legislation.

In the Senate, there appeared to be general agreement among Democrats that Obama’s soft approach on health care reform has been the right one, and they also praised the important role that he has played in selling the concept of health care reform to the public.

“I think he’s done a good job of letting us do our thing for a while,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said Monday.

Whitehouse sits on the HELP panel, which began marking up its health care reform bill Wednesday.

No meetings were scheduled as of Monday afternoon between the president and lawmakers on health care, according to one White House official, but this source noted that face-to-face meetings can be arranged at any moment.

Obama kicked off the PR side of the week Monday with an event touting a decision by drugmakers to provide about $80 billion in assistance over 10 years to help seniors buy name-brand drugs. It is unclear whether the assistance will help defray the costs of providing a government health insurance option, but Obama said the initiative falls under the general banner of health reform.

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