Obama Tells Health Care Negotiators to Keep Working

Posted August 6, 2009 at 12:59pm

Updated: 2:04 p.m.

President Barack Obama on Thursday told a group of six Senate Finance Committee members to continue working toward a bipartisan health care bill, but stressed the urgency of getting a bill done this year.

After the hourlong meeting at the White House, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) told reporters that the president’s overarching message was, “Keep working … and how important this is for the country. How absolutely important this is.—

But Conrad acknowledged the president urged the six negotiators to come to an agreement sooner rather than later. “He is doing what you’d expect him to do — keep the pressure on to get a result. But he understands the most important thing is to get it right,— Conrad said.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is leading the members’ talks, said the meeting “went very well.—

“It was an hour; taking stock; process; substance; politics. It was very candid. Half of the meeting he kicked all the staff out, it was just the seven of us comparing notes,— Baucus said. “He encouraged us to continue with the effort. We talked about what policies are better than some others, and [that] we should keep working through the August recess. I told him we are. And, we may reach a point, though, when we get back — we’ll take stock when we get back, and at that point, if things are going great, fine. And if not, then we may have to go in some other direction.—

Conrad said Obama and the negotiators — which include Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sens. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) — talked about a number of policy issues in relation to the bill the six have been attempting to craft over the past two months of intense negotiations.

“We talked about Medicaid expansion, affordability, pay-fors, you know, and we’ve emphasized over and over those are areas that continue to need work— in the continuing talks, Conrad said.

He added that the president “made clear his concern about Medicaid expansion being done in a way that was coordinated carefully with the governors and that on affordability you have to be very sensitive to what the burden is on people. You know we’ve got to make certain that people are better off because of this than they were before.—

Conrad acknowledged that the meeting included some talk of whether Senate Democrats would — if the bipartisan talks fail to produce an agreement —have to utilize arcane budget rules to prevent any health care bill from being filibustered. That option, Conrad said, is “that’s not a preferred alternative.—

But Baucus indicated he is sticking to his Sept. 15 deadline for having a deal: “We’ll take stock when we get back, and at that point, if things are going great, fine. And if not, then we may have to go in some other direction.—

Speaking with reporters earlier Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said using budget rules, also known as reconciliation, to pass the bill without filibuster is an option of last resort.

“We’re not even discussing that,— Reid said. “We believe health care should be bipartisan. … We don’t want to use reconciliation unless we have to.—

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs agreed, telling reporters Thursday that the president hopes to avoid using reconciliation to get a bill, and prefers a bipartisan package: “It means the president is interested in doing this first and foremost by regular order.—

The White House also is showing new flexibility on the timing of a vote, with Gibbs now offering up the end of the year as a deadline. Gibbs downplayed the failure of Congress to move legislation by the August recess, Obama’s original timeline.

Obama does not “think that not meeting the August goal in any way imperils health reform,— Gibbs said.

Keith Koffler and David M. Drucker contributed to this report.