Obama Pushes Health Care Reform in Rare Capitol Hill Sunday Trip

Republicans decry the president's Democrats-only meeting as partisanship.

ByABC News
December 5, 2009, 10:53 AM

Dec. 6, 2009 — -- President Obama appeared on Capitol Hill today during a rare weekend session to urge Senate Democrats to reach a compromise on a health care bill they hope to pass before year's end.

Accompanying the president were Vice President Joe Biden, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, White House health care czar Nancy-Ann DeParle and White House senior adviser David Axelrod. The president did not speak to reporters before or after the closed-door meeting with Senate Democrats.

The president's 40-minute meeting with members of the Senate Democratic caucus stayed broad, according to senators and aides who were at the meeting. He mentioned neither the public option nor abortion, the two issues that Democratic leaders acknowledge continue to vex efforts to find compromise in the Senate.

Instead, the president made a broad case for overhaul. He touted this year's major legislative accomplishments, cited recent encouraging employment news and argued that if Senate Democrats pass the health care initiative, the politics will take care of itself, in 2010 and far beyond.

The president made a broad appeal for health care overhaul in "only words Barack Obama can utter," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

"Not since Social Security have we had such an issue in this country," Reid of Nevada said. "Ten, 20, 30, 40 years from now, people are going to look back at what this Congress did."

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said, "I hope he gives that speech to the nation."

But the president did not change the minds of moderate Democrats uncomfortable with the bill.

"For those who have made a decision to be supportive, I think he was persuasive," said Nebraska's Sen. Ben Nelson, who's undecided about whether to support the bill. "There are still issues that have to be resolved. You're always hopeful that the stars will align and all of those interests will be decided."

Republicans were not invited to meet with the president, prompting some critics to charge that the health care debate is an example of politics-as-usual-partisanship.

"The fact that the president of the United States is meeting with Democrats only tells you where the debate has gone," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said to reporters at the Capitol Sunday. "It's drifted off into a completely partisan effort."

And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose amendment to strip the bill of $460 billion in Medicare cuts failed last Thursday, said it was time to stop "this behind-closed-doors" routine.

"I would love for the president to come meet with the 40 of us on the other side of the aisle," McCain said. "Let's all sit down together, Republicans and Democrats with C-Span in the room, so American people can see what's happening."

Reid emerged from the meeting sounding upbeat.

"There's still a few things we have to work out in the bill but issues are being narrowed as we speak," Reid said. "We will arrive at a consensus as quickly as we can."

He said he wasn't bothered by the president's not addressing the public option or abortion.

"Progress is being made and that's not just talk," Reid said. "We've made a lot of progress."

Reid said he called and personally asked five moderates and five progressive Democrats to "work things out on the issues that they care a lot about."

Those moderate Democrats include Nelson, Arkansas Democrats Sen. Blanche Lincoln and Sen. Mark Pryor, Delaware Sen. Thomas Carper and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. The liberal Democrats include Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller and New York Sen. Chuck Schumer.

The president's appearance signals Democrats' urgency to pass health care legislation before the end of the year, as well as the difficulty of the task.