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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.

The White House also announced that Obama will hold a midday Rose Garden press conference today, at which Obama aides are expecting a barrage of health care questions — and the opportunity for Obama to provide answers that will amount to big pitches for his plan. The president may kick off the session with comments on health care.

On Wednesday night, Obama holds a health care “town hall” event at the White House that will be staged at 8 p.m. and broadcast later in the evening on ABC.

The week will be capped Thursday by two massive efforts by Obama allies. In Washington, D.C., Health Care for America Now, an organization backed by unions like the AFL-CIO and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and activist groups like MoveOn and the Campaign for America’s Future, will hold what organizers say will be a massive rally on Capitol Hill demanding a public insurance option.

Separate “town halls” involving participants from various regions will be staged afterward around the city.

At the same time, members of Organizing for America — essentially the e-mail list from Obama’s campaign plus others who have signed on since the election — are being urged to organize health care “service” events around the country.

Such events, according to information provided to OFA members, could include efforts like volunteering at a community health center or coordinating a community blood drive.

But OFA materials make clear that the purpose of the event is to get participants more involved in backing Obama’s health care agenda and making connections with others who can help.

“Volunteers who participate in the National Health Care Day of Service will be stronger advocates for health care reform,” an OFA document states.

Republicans were generally not enthused with the president’s actions. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), the ranking member on HELP, basically accused Obama of meddling in the process.

“I think he’s being plenty forceful — I think he’s interrupting the work that we could be doing,” Enzi said Monday.

Republicans on HELP, after months of negotiations in that committee, have come out against the bill being marked up there under the direction of Democratic leaders.

Democrats seem to agree that there will come a time when Obama’s influence will be key to pushing major health care reform across the finish line. But that time hasn’t arrived yet.

The process for moving a bill to the floor in the Senate involves HELP and the Finance Committee approving separate bills and then negotiating a merger into a single legislative vehicle. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) said Monday that how much Obama is needed to get a bill done will depend on what happens in HELP and Finance.

“There will come a time, when it’s going to be very important for the president to step in and push it along and give some clearer definitions to what he’d like to see,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a senior member of the HELP Committee. “There will be a time, but that time is not ripe yet.”

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who has unveiled a health care reform bill of his own, said any hope of reaching a bipartisan consensus depends on Obama — if bipartisanship is something the president desires. Burr predicted that health care reform would fail absent Obama’s push for a bill that can be embraced by Democrats and Republicans.

“I’m not sure that he’s playing a role,” Burr said. “The process up here has been less than bipartisan. This is all about process; it’s not about reaching a consensus. At some point the president has to weigh in with either what his plan is or what the process is going to be, if in fact he wants a bill that he could sign.”

“If not,” Burr added, “the weight of where this is going the American people will kill long before the president gets hold of it.”

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