In Meeting With Senators, Obama Pushes Health Care

President Obama called Senate Democrats to the White House and urged them to come together and pass health care legislation. The meeting came a day after lawmakers indicated that they were prepared to drop a proposal that would have expanded Medicare.

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MELISSA BLOCK host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Cautiously optimistic is how President Obama described his mood today. He was talking about efforts to pass a health care overhaul. This afternoon the president invited the entire Democratic Senate caucus to sit down with him to figure out how to get that last mile, and afterwards, he had this to say.

President BARACK OBAMA: It's clear that we are on the precipice of an achievement that's eluded congresses and presidents for generations - an achievement that will touch the lives of nearly every American.

SIEGEL: In a moment, we'll hear from a senator who was at that White House meeting. But, first, NPR's Mara Liasson joins us to talk about the state of play. And Mara, the metaphor was: on the precipice. Typically that suggests possibly falling off a cliff.

MARA LIASSON: Yes. And at many times the health care legislation has looked like it was on the brink of the abyss, but today it looked like it took one step back from the brink when Independent Senator Joe Lieberman came back into the fold after he essentially forced Democrats to remove the public option and a Medicare buy-in - the ability for people under 65 to buy in to Medicare from the bill. No sooner had he done that, then you heard from liberals like Howard Dean who said this bill should be killed.

But I think this really shows you how 60 votes is not a very big number. The Democrats only have 60. That's the number they need to break a Republican filibuster, so any one senator gets to make themselves very, very relevant.

SIEGEL: And what was the point of the meeting with the entire caucus?

LIASSON: The point is that health care is really coming down to the line. The Christmas deadline is looming. This is a crucial moment. The president is really putting his capital on the line. He feels that he's close to a historic victory, and the message for the Senators today was to focus on the big picture. He told them, look, we have a lot of differences, but let's not allow our differences over individual details in this bill to prevent us from passing it.

I think his tone also tells you a little bit about the stakes. He sounded pretty peeved at times. He talked about the misinformation that was out there and the scare tactics. I think he's really trying to provide some cover for his Democrats who are nervous about this bill, which is unpopular in some polls, despite the fact that he keeps on saying he's optimistic we're going to get this.

SIEGEL: Mara, the argument for a public option and then, later, the argument for a Medicare buy-in was these would be ways to providing some competition to the private insurance industry. If they're not there, what is the argument? Where would the competition be to the private insurance companies?

LIASSON: The argument is, from the White House, is there's going to be a lot of new customers out there shopping for plans, that the bills will let customers know how much of their money is being spent on premiums versus overhead -that's going to put pressure on insurers who are competing with other insurers. It's going to create a more competitive market. That is their argument. Certainly not as much competition as if you had a government plan competing with the private insurers, but that's what they say.

SIEGEL: And where does it all stand now at this point?

LIASSON: Well, Dick Durbin, who's the whip in the Senate, the vote counter came out after the meeting and said he doesn't take anything for granted, but he is optimistic they'll get a bill by Christmas. He said that liberals are not happy with the removal of the public option and the Medicare buy in. He's not happy about it, but they're basically okay, that there's so much in this bill that they like, that they are unlikely to break ranks. Now the focus is on Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska. He's concerned about the abortion language in the bill. The math is very unforgiving in the Senate. They need him, or they need a Republican to replace him to get to 60.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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