The president’s 40-minute meeting with members of the Senate Democratic caucus stayed broad, according to senators and aides who were inside the meeting. He didn’t mention either the public option or abortion – the two issues that Democratic leaders acknowledge continue to vex efforts to find compromise in the Senate.
Instead, the president made the broad case for reform. He touted this year’s major legislative accomplishments, cited recent encouraging employment news – and argued that if Senate Democrats pass health care reform, the politics will take care of itself, in 2010 and far beyond.
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“In words that only Barack Obama could utter, [he said that] 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now people are going to look back at what this Congress did,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Reid said he wasn’t bothered by the fact that the president didn’t address the public option or abortion.
“Progress is being made and that’s not just talk. We’ve made a lot of progress,” Reid said.
“I hope he gives that speech to the nation,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
But the President did 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 Sen. Ben Nelson, who has not made a decision to support the bill yet. “There are still issues that have to be resolved,” Nelson said. “You’re always hopeful that the stars will align and all of those interests will be decided.”
Reid has asked Senators who disagree on the public option – progressives and moderates in the party – to work out a compromise in private negotiations.
In a rare break from Senate protocol, Democrats left Republicans presiding over the Senate during their meeting with the President. But while President Obama was giving his speech behind closed doors to Democrats, Republican leaders held a press conference outside the room to draw attention to the fact that the health reform legislation is being molded behind closed doors to find middle ground.
“It’s time to stop this behind closed doors routine that they have been going through and deal cutting. Let’s do what the President said last October a year ago, Let’s all sit down together, Republicans and Democrats with CSPAN in the room and negotiate so that the American people can see what’s going on here,” said Sen. John McCain, who has become Republicans’ point man on the legislation during debate on the Senate floor.
The closed door meetings on a public option compromise were set to continue later Sunday. A proposal to tweak the government-run health insurance option to more closely resemble the privately-run insurance that is given to federal workers and lawmakers. Government workers choose from a variety of insurance options, but the system is overseen by the Office of Personnel Management, a government agency.
That proposal is gaining some interest from Senators who have said they would support a Republican filibuster unless the public option is stripped from the bill Senators have been debating on the Senate floor.
“I’ll feel more comfortable when its out,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Independent who caucuses with Democrats. “I don’t understand exactly what’s in this new proposal so I want to see it if its private and there’s no federal government financial exposure and the government is not creating an insurance company, well that’s one way,” he said.
But the proposal is still in its planning stages and must be fleshed out. That could further delay the floor debate as Democrats try to meet the latest in a series of self-imposed deadlines – passing a reform bill through the Senate this year.