Analysis: Obama tied to health bill's fate

For Immediate Release:

January 16, 2010

Contact:CHARLES BABINGTON

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- For months, President Barack Obama has owned the health care legislation that's struggling to cross the finish line in Congress.

Now, after an extraordinary investment of a president's time and attention, Obama seems determined to be its chief architect, factory manager and nightshift supervisor as well.

In a bid to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions, Obama summoned Congress' Democratic leaders to the White House for nearly eight hours Wednesday, followed by a session Thursday that ran well past midnight and a third meeting on Friday afternoon.

Participants said the president occasionally broke away for phone calls - especially as the Haiti earthquake disaster unfolded Wednesday - but otherwise kept his seat in the Cabinet Room hour after hour as lawmakers haggled over details such as how to tax high-end health insurance plans.

By Friday, lawmakers said they were near an accord.

It's the type of nitty-gritty, down-in-the-weeds work that a president often delegates to a chief of staff or lower aide. But Obama led the negotiations himself, cajoling, wheedling and prodding House and Senate leaders to make compromises that will result in one bill that can pass both chambers, even if by the narrowest of margins and with no help from Republicans.

The meetings surprised some who view Obama as too standoffish and cerebral for the sometimes grimy work of passing legislation. And his hands-on approach has tied him more tightly than ever to the health care package's fate.

If Republicans manage to kill it - and a GOP win in Massachusetts's tight contest Tuesday to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy could position them to do so - then Obama will have no way to distance himself from the political disaster. And even if it becomes law, voters and historians may judge Obama harshly if his promises to curb health care costs and dramatically expand coverage fall flat.

But Obama could join a small pantheon of domestic-policy heroes such as Franklin Roosevelt (Social Security) and Lyndon Johnson (Medicare) if the health care bill leads to the extensive reforms that he and fellow Democratic leaders say it will.

By any measure, Obama's willingness to negotiate for hours on end is remarkable, said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who studies Congress closely.

"Usually, not too much ink gets on a president's fingers," Baker said. "But he's rolled up his sleeves. He gave the framing job to Congress, and he's doing the finishing work now."

Baker said former President George W. Bush eschewed such paragraph-by-paragraph dealmaking. Bill Clinton enjoyed the details of policy, Baker said, but he tended to work more with White House aides and outside experts than with lawmakers.

Indeed, Clinton has long said that presenting Congress with a massive take-it-or-leave-it health care proposal in 1993 was a mistake.

"I always felt badly that I didn't coordinate closely enough with the House," Clinton told House Democrats this week, according to an aide who took detailed notes of the pep talk.

Several Washington insiders said Obama had little chance of reconciling the House and Senate bills without involving himself intensely.

"Whenever there is a tough vote on a bill that's near the finish line, members want to know exactly where the president is," said Bruce Reed, the top domestic policy adviser in Clinton's White House. By leading the negotiations himself, Obama is leaving no doubt, Reed said.

A congressional aide who attended Wednesday's marathon session said Obama rarely left his chair, where he was flanked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other senators sat across from them. Key staffers such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel took the other seats.

Obama listened a lot, but continually pushed the lawmakers to find middle ground, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations. "It's a lot of round and round, a lot of retreads over the contradiction in the bills," the aide said.

Pelosi said the health legislation would not be on the brink of passage without Obama's direct involvement. She praised "the incredible time and his attention to the details."

When contentious legislation veers between success and failure, the president must throw himself into it, said top White House adviser David Axelrod.

"The stature of the president is important in terms of resolving those difficult last issues," he told reporters Friday. He said Obama is "highly, highly literate, fluent in the details of this. And he's pretty good at bringing consensus."

But with opinion polls showing that many Americans oppose the legislation, it's unclear how time will judge his hands-on efforts.

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