Back in the White House after a week overseas, President Barack Obama pressed Democratic leaders to pass health care legislation in both houses of Congress before August -- and told a key lawmaker involved in drafting legislation that he wants a bill in the Senate Finance Committee by week's end.
Democratic officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the president delivered his message Monday to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., in a White House meeting attended by administration officials and Democratic lawmakers.
"Don't bet against us. We are going to make this thing happen," a defiant president said publicly on Monday, eager to impart fresh momentum after days of delays in the House and Senate.
Obama delivered his full-throated promise in a Rose Garden appearance to announce his surgeon general nominee and later met privately with Democratic congressional leaders crucial to his legislation. The leadership's ambitious timetable for floor votes this summer has slipped.
"There was a strong agreement by everyone in the room that we can get a bill done before the start of the August recess," said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "Sen. Reid intends to take a bill to the floor as quickly as possible."
That was short of a commitment, and left unanswered how quickly the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Sen. Baucus would act — or whether the leadership and White House would step in.
"The urgency barometer is going up," Baucus said following the White House meeting.
In the House, Democrats said they were nearly ready to unveil comprehensive legislation, and push it through three committees in the coming days. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long been on record as saying the full House would act by the end of July.
While the president was out of the country sizing up foreign leaders, rank-and-file lawmakers took a look at the emerging details of health care legislation and many decided they didn't like what they saw. They called a time out. In the House, conservative Democrats rebelled over costs. In the Senate, the Democratic leadership pulled the plug on a controversial financing scheme to tax health benefits that a moderate Democrat worked out with Republican counterparts.
In a separate White House meeting Monday with union leaders, Obama said taxation of employer-provided health benefits was off the table and expressed his strong commitment to a voluntary public health plan, according to a labor activist familiar with the session. The activist spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss the private meeting.
Joining Reid, Pelosi and Baucus at the White House were House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.
Despite Obama's determination, there's no guarantee he'll succeed in the effort to get all Americans covered and try to better manage costs. With lawmakers concerned about the cost of an overhaul above all else, Congress may decide to expand coverage slowly, phasing it in over a number of years.
Baucus and Rangel are in charge of the crucial job of coming up with how to pay for a comprehensive health care overhaul that would cost at least $1 trillion over 10 years, mostly for subsidies to help cover nearly 50 million uninsured Americans. But the two Democrats are taking very different routes. Rangel is shaping a bill that Democrats can support. Baucus is striving for a bipartisan compromise, which would have better chance of winning broad support, and which Obama says he wants.
Obama lost no time signaling that he intends to be in the forefront of the action.
"I just want to put everybody on notice, because there was a lot of chatter during the week that I was gone," the president said. "Inaction is not an option."
He also ruled out any tax increase affecting the middle class, complicating lawmakers' efforts to pay for overhaul.
"During the campaign I promised health care reform that would control costs, expand coverage and ensure choice and I promised that Americans making $250,000 a year or less would not pay more in taxes. These are promises that we're keeping as reform moves forward," Obama said.
House Democrats may be able to muscle a bill through the floor by August.
"We will be on schedule," Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters. Nonetheless, release of a bill — originally set for last Friday — was delayed until Tuesday. And Pelosi indicated more changes are likely as leaders try to keep intact a Democratic caucus that includes liberals and conservatives. "It won't be the final product," Pelosi said. "It is just the beginning."
Underscoring that political challenge, the campaign arm of the House GOP targeted more than 60 potentially vulnerable House Democrats on Monday with news releases asking whether they planned to support the Democrats' "massive government health care takeover" and "job-killing tax hike."
Up to now, the president has avoided debating policy details, choosing instead to make the broader case for a health care overhaul, and leaving the day-to-day negotiations to his aides. Yet if Congress is getting stuck in a policy swamp, Obama may be the only one who can get things moving again. He hinted as much on Monday: "Muscles in this town to bring about big changes are a little atrophied but we are whipping people back into shape," he said.
House Democrats have proposed raising income taxes on the wealthy. That faces opposition in the Senate, where a bipartisan group of senators is trying to reassemble a financing package now missing a key component: an unpopular tax on high-cost health insurance benefits, which would have raised $320 billion out of a $1 trillion package.
On Monday, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee pushed to complete a partisan bill by Tuesday that would create a government-run health plan to compete with private insurers and require employers to provide coverage. Sponsors say the legislation would lead coverage for 97 percent of Americans. Its incomplete price tag is $600 billion over 10 years as the panel — one of five in Congress working on health care — is leaving some major cost issues to the Senate Finance Committee.