Obama heads to Hill to sell health care bill

President Barack Obama is paying a rare visit to Capitol Hill to urge Senate Democrats forward as they work through the weekend to try to resolve their differences on his sweeping health care overhaul.

The president’s planned appearance at a Senate Democratic caucus meeting Sunday afternoon answers appeals from a number of lawmakers eager for him to step in and help Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., finish the job.

“That is what the president is supposed to do, to use his bully pulpit,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Until now, “I haven’t seen much of it,” Harkin said Saturday.

Obama and Reid must unite liberals and moderates in the 60-member caucus, even as moderates balk over abortion and a proposal for the government to sell health insurance in competition with the private market. Sixty is the precise number needed to overcome Republican stalling tactics in the 100-member Senate, so Reid doesn’t have a vote to spare.

Moderate and liberal lawmakers met throughout the day Saturday to try to find a compromise on the government insurance plan that they could all support and that could also potentially attract Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the one Republican to vote for the Democrats’ health overhaul bill in committee.

A new idea being discussed was national nonprofit insurance plans that would be administered by the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees the well-liked Federal Employees Health Benefits Program.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., a key centrist, was enthusiastic about the idea, which she’s proposed in different forms in the past. “I think it bodes well for being able to do what we want to do, which is to create greater choice and options in the marketplace,” she said.

Liberals were cool to the proposal, holding out for a fully government-run plan.

“I’m willing to talk to anybody about anything but they haven’t sold it yet,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. “We have compromised enough on the public option.”

Someone will have to give. But despite the apparent divide, lawmakers and White House officials sounded increasingly optimistic.

“It’s going really well. They’re having a lot of really productive meetings,” Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, told reporters in the Capitol Saturday. “It’s about where it should be at this point in the legislative process.”

Reid called the unusual weekend sessions as he races to finish the sweeping bill by Christmas. The House already passed its version last month. The nearly $1 trillion, 10-year legislation would provide coverage to more than 30 million more people over the next decade with a new requirement for nearly everyone to purchase insurance. There would be new marketplaces where people could shop for and compare insurance plans, and lower-income people would get subsidies to help them afford coverage. The federal-state Medicaid program for the poor would grow, and there would be a ban on unpopular insurance company practices such as pulling coverage when someone gets sick.