The battle for health care reform continued to play out behind closed doors as President Obama summoned 16 moderate Democrats and one independent, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, to the White House Thursday to give them the hard sell on his overhaul proposals.
Many of these senators have expressed concerns about -- and, in some cases, downright opposition -- to key elements of the president's health care proposals, particularly his push for a government-run public insurance option, which the White House says will stoke competition and push down costs for the American people.
"I am confident the plan that we put forward is the right plan for the American people. ... I will not tolerate us continuing to pay more for less in health care," Obama said Thursday following a meeting with his Cabinet. "The time is right, and we are going to move aggressively to get this done."
To convince his party members skeptical about the costs of the plan, the president brought in his Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, a move that surprised some. Orszag's presentation made the case that the health care reform plan the president will ultimately sign will be fiscally balanced and won't increase the deficit, and that the effort will slow skyrocketing health care costs.
The president said in his address to the joint session of Congress Wednesday that his plan will cost around $900 billion over 10 years but that it will not add to the deficit, and that if the government is "able to slow the growth of health care costs by just one-tenth of one percent each year, it will actually reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the long term."
Another thorny issue on both the right and left is the idea of a "public option" plan. The president tried to convince both Democrats and Republicans in his address Wednesday that a government-run insurance option would not drive out private insurance companies from the market but rather stoke competition and provide more affordable coverage to those who are rejected by insurance firms. However, he did not threaten to veto a bill that would not contain this option and emphasized that he is open to alternatives.
In his meeting with the Democratic senators, sources said the president firmly stood by his principles but showed flexibility on the public option plan.
He made his case for the government-run public option, though he said he'd look at alternative proposals for privately run co-ops, or for the public plan being enacted only if sufficient cost savings aren't realized, with a legislative "trigger" mechanism. Moderate Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe was one of the first to introduce that idea.
The public option, the president said, "is part of health care reform; it is not health care reform."
But his middle-of-the-road approach hasn't appeased either Democrats or Republicans. In fact, many liberal lawmakers are upset over his approach.
"All this talk about the competition wouldn't exist if you don't have the public option," Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., told ABC News. "To suddenly say the public option wasn't that important after all, but I really do believe that you lose 100 votes."
"Frankly, unless he's more clear about this public option, we are going to be continuing to be tugging in different directions," Weiner said.
On the other side, Republicans say Obama's claims that he wants to work in a bipartisan way are hollow.