President Obama Becomes Lobbyist in Chief for Health Care Overhaul

President continues his push for reform in closed door meetings.

Sept. 11, 2009— -- 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."

'Tugging in Different Directions'

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.

"Bottom line: 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 toward some kind of common solution," Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said Thursday.

Others say the president should've taken the public option plan off the table altogether.

"Unfortunately, what the American people got wasn't a new health care plan. It was just another lecture. He had a chance to really put the government-run plan to bed, but unfortunately, he didn't do it," House Republican Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a news conference Thursday.

Joe Wilson Stands His Ground

While the GOP leadership discredited the president's speech, it also distanced itself from their colleague, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., who burst out with "You Lie!" Wednesday night when the president said a health care reform plan would not cover illegal immigrants.

"I think that Mr. Wilson summed it up best when he said his behavior was inappropriate," Boehner said, although he wouldn't say whether it was an embarrassment to the party.

Wilson issued a written apology for his lack of civility shortly after Obama's speech ended, but on Thursday, he appeared seemingly unapologetic and said the Republican leadership approached him to apologize to the White House.

"Well I last night heard from the leadership that they wanted me to contact the White House and state that my statements were inappropriate and I did," Wilson told reporters Thursday. "I am grateful the White House indicated they appreciated the call and that we needed a civil discussion and I agree with that."

The South Carolina senator also took to the conservative airwaves.

"I do apologize for speaking out but what was said was not accurate," Wilson said in an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity.

In a new YouTube video posted to his campaign Web site, Wilson said it was "wrong" for his emotions to get the best of him but on the issue of a government takeover of health care, he will "not be muzzled."

"I will speak up and speak loudly against this risky plan," Wilson said.

He urged supporters to visit his campaign Web site so that liberals will not be able to use him to distract attention from the flaws in the president's plan.

Meanwhile, Wilson may be losing out politically and has become the center of late night jokes. A new web site devoted to him as a spoilsport emerged the next day and his Democratic opponent former Marine Rob Miller has raised more than $700,000 in campaign contributions since the outburst.

The president said he accepted Wilson's apology but also called for civil discourse in this heated debate on health care.

The White House is frustrated with defending legislation that doesn't meet the president's ideals. Even though it offers few specifics -- the "Obama plan" is only one page long -- they are more comfortable defending it than the various bills floating around in Congress.

The president is expected to continue to push his health care message as Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., has given a deadline of next week to come up with a bill, with or without Republican support.

ABC News' Jonathan Karl and Teddy Davis contributed to this report.