President Obama urged congressional Democrats on Wednesday "to finish the job on health care," but amid tentative signs of bipartisan outreach on Capitol Hill, he suggested that Republicans could be enlisted to play at least some role in negotiating a final bill.
For two weeks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) have struggled for a way to salvage health-care legislation that had appeared on the verge of final passage until a special election in Massachusetts deprived Democrats of their filibuster-proof Senate majority.
Reid and Pelosi have yet to agree on a plan, and many Democrats are irritated that the protracted haggling over health-care reform is overshadowing progress on other legislation, including an $81 billion job-creation bill that Senate leaders plan to announce Thursday. The dispute has created tension between Democrats in the House and in the Senate and has revealed increasing frustration within the party toward Obama, who pushed Congress to produce a series of monumental bills last year but has not signed any of them into law.
In the coming days, Reid and Pelosi are expected to confer with the president to determine whether Democrats can pass the existing health-care bill or will be forced to start anew.
Speaking to Senate Democrats at their retreat Wednesday morning, Obama brushed aside calls from party moderates to shelve health-care reform at least until after the November midterm elections.
"We've got to finish the job, even though it's hard," he told the senators. But Democrats also took note when Obama described a process for completing the bill that would take place "in an open way, in a transparent way, in a spirit that says to our political opponents that we welcome their ideas." That description bore little resemblance to the backroom negotiations now underway between Reid and Pelosi.
If Democrats adhere to his guidelines, Obama said, "politics in 2010 will take care of themselves."
House leaders are attempting to work out a plan to use special budget rules to fix the Senate health-care bill, a strategy that would protect it from a GOP filibuster. So far, however, Reid has been unable to identify compromise language that could win 51 Democratic votes. House Democrats also are pushing for major changes to the Senate bill, including the elimination of its main new revenue source, an excise tax on high-value insurance plans.
"We're waiting for the Senate to come back to us to say, 'This is what we can do,' " said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).
If Pelosi and Reid can't reach agreement, Democratic lawmakers said, they will explore alternative approaches, including passing smaller bills to address problems in the health-care system or attempting to write consensus legislation with Republicans.
What should Obama do?
One question Democratic lawmakers struggle with is precisely what role they want Obama to play. On one hand, they are eager for him to hit the stump and sell the party's ambitious agenda to a skeptical public. But they also would prefer that the president become more deeply involved in policy negotiations.
"Go out and talk to the unemployed. Go out and talk to small businesses," said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), president of the freshman Democratic class. At the same time, Connolly cautioned that Obama had been "too much the cerebral, cool, detached" president, and needs to weigh in forcefully to break the logjam over health-care reform and other issues. "He needs to recalibrate what the proper balance is moving forward," Connolly said.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said Obama will not delve into the minutiae of writing a health-care bill. "He's not a legislative technician," Burton said. "He's not going to get into the nitty-gritty of what the best way forward is at this point."
The GOP outreach effort that Obama began during his State of the Union address has already delivered at least a glimmer of bipartisan spirit to Capitol Hill. Pelosi and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) met Tuesday, and Obama invited Republican lawmakers from Indiana and Louisiana to watch the Super Bowl at the White House on Sunday.
Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) co-sponsored a Medicare payroll tax cut for companies that hire new workers, a key provision in the Senate jobs bill that is expected to be announced Thursday.
The legislation, which could come to a vote next week, would devote about $15 billion to measures, including the Schumer-Hatch proposal, aimed at spurring immediate hiring. The package also includes $33 billion to extend a variety of expiring tax breaks, and another $33 billion to extend unemployment benefits and temporarily protect doctors from a scheduled Medicare payment cut.
Obama will also host congressional leaders from both parties Tuesday for the first in a series of monthly sessions.
GOP holding firm
But despite hints of a thaw in relations, there have been signs this week of the GOP resistance that characterized most of last year.
Congressional Republicans said one reason that Scott Brown, the winner of the Massachusetts special election, is being sworn in as the 41st GOP senator Thursday -- rather than next week, as previously planned -- is so he can help block the nomination of Craig Becker, an associate general counsel for the Service Employees International Union and the AFL-CIO, to the National Labor Relations Board. GOP senators have used the filibuster and other parliamentary tools to block a series of executive appointments.
Some Democrats welcomed the fledgling efforts toward bipartisanship as the best hope for concrete results. "I think the best policy is always made with the best ideas of both parties," Rep. Rick Boucher (Va.), facing his first difficult reelection campaign since 1984, said Wednesday.
But others suggested that forcing Republicans into a battle of ideas would highlight the differences between the two parties. Democrats said they hope that Obama's effort, which he debuted at the House GOP gathering in Baltimore last week, will force Republicans to offer their own proposals on Medicare, education and other issues -- proposals that Democrats think voters will frown on.
"At least the public will know the differences, said Rep. John B. Larson (Conn.), the No. 4 Democratic leader. "I think the president has called the Republicans out."
But Democrats who face tough races in November remain wary that voter confidence in either party can be easily restored.
"This place looks broken to the American people," Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) told Obama at the Democratic meeting Wednesday. "What are we going to do differently, what are you going to do differently, what do we need to do differently as Democrats and Republicans, to fix this institution so that our democracy can actually withstand the tests that we're facing right now?"
"We've got to constantly make our case," Obama responded. "And not play an insider's game; play an outsider's game."