Obama pulls Dems into line

But many Republicans are fuming after speech

The New York TimesSeptember 11, 2009 

— President Barack Obama's speech on health care failed to bridge the gulf with Republicans. But Democrats said Thursday that the president largely succeeded in unifying his own party by making a cogent, persuasive pitch to the American public and by casting his plan to overhaul the health-care system as a political and moral imperative.

The day after the nationally televised address, in which Obama signaled that he could accept an alternative to a government-run insurance plan, influential Democrats who previously seemed wedded to the public insurance option hinted that they, too, might be flexible. They included the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and Rep. Henry A. Waxman, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Democrats sought to use momentum from the speech to reshape the national debate after more than a month of playing defense. Obama wasted no time in pursuing the support of lawmakers who seem to be on the fence by inviting a group of 17 Senate Democrats, mostly centrists, to meet with him at the White House on Thursday afternoon -- a session that participants described as overwhelmingly positive.

And the White House said the president would continue to press the health-care issue around the country, including at a rally Saturday in Minnesota and an interview on "60 Minutes" to be broadcast Sunday.

In the Senate, in particular, the architects of a bipartisan health-care proposal said Obama's speech had given them a lift by endorsing much of what they have proposed, especially a plan to pay a chunk of the bill's cost with new fees on high-end health insurance plans. Both Democrats and Republicans think such a tax can help tamp down long-term health-care spending.

"The president's speech breathed new life into what we are doing," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the Finance Committee, who is leading the bipartisan negotiations. "The president is talking about what we are talking about. That is very helpful. We're very close to being in sync here."

The group of six Senate Finance negotiators, three Democrats and three Republicans, met again Thursday to try to resolve differences. Large obstacles remain, including serious disagreements over a proposed expansion of Medicaid.

Some of Obama's remarks left liberals disappointed, such as his willingness to bend on the idea of creating a government-run health plan to compete with private insurers, which has broad support in the House.

Senators who attended the meeting at the White House said the main topic of discussion was controlling the overall cost of the health-care plan. Several said they were optimistic that they could eventually support the bill.

"The president's speech was very good," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. "Our challenge is to produce a bill as good as the speech."

Democratic leaders acknowledged that Obama's speech had probably not shifted any opposition vote from no to yes on the legislation.

Republicans who had reveled in watching Democrats under siege at town-hall-style meetings during the summer recess found themselves on the defensive Thursday, trying to refute Obama's assertions that many of them had promoted false attacks and were unwilling to work toward a compromise that would benefit Americans.

Some Republicans were furious.

"I thought the speech was partisan, uninformative, disingenuous and not likely to encourage those who have honest disagreements with him to be able to work towards some kind of common solution," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the No. 2 Republican.

"The point of the speech was to unify the president's Democratic base, not to advance policy," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., who has indicated he would like to work with the Democrats on health care. "We heard a lot of pontifications and platitudes."

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