WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats tried hard to defuse mounting opposition to their health care overhaul effort Tuesday as they huddled at the White House and vowed unity and bipartisan cooperation.
However, they also had a warning for the rowdy crowds at some congressional events around the country, where protesters have complained about health care initiatives.
"In spite of the loud, shrill voices trying to interrupt town hall meetings and just throw a monkey wrench into everything, we're going to be positive and work hard," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said after the meeting.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius were booed recently, and sometimes cheered, at a lively Philadelphia town hall meeting. Congressmen from New York and Virginia have reported boisterous crowds that police were needed to help control. Polls find that public approval of Obama's handling of the issue is dropping.
The concern, particularly among conservatives, is that the health care legislation that's being written in Congress, mostly by Democrats, will make the government a major player in medical decisions and will require impossible-to-predict increases in spending.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said Tuesday that he understood the August challenge.
"Our goal is to explain what we are doing, why we are doing this, getting costs down," and, he said, "making sure people are able to keep their same doctor and keep their same plan and have the choice they want to have.
"When they understand that, I think it's going to work out quite well."
Back at the Capitol, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky shared the desire for more dialogue, but was skeptical about how much Republicans would be consulted or heard.
"I think right now what we can safely say is the only thing bipartisan about the bills we've seen is the opposition to them," he said.
Four of five legislative committees have finished writing bills, and the other, Senate Finance, is hoping to complete its work early next month. Three committee Democrats and three Republicans have been trying to craft a bipartisan compromise.
Obama, who's made health care his major policy initiative this year, called senators to the White House on Tuesday for what amounted to a pep rally.
"There was absolute unity in the caucus," Reid said afterward. "Different ideas were expressed, but every idea was that we understand that before year's end, we're going to get comprehensive health care reform."
They reportedly didn't negotiate the fine points of legislation — that undoubtedly will come this fall — or tackle the thorny issue of how to pay for legislation that's likely to cost around $900 billion over 10 years.
Obama said last month that he wanted House of Representatives and Senate votes before lawmakers left for their summer recesses. Instead, those votes are unlikely before mid-September. The House left Friday, and the Senate is scheduled to leave at the end of this week.
"The mood was pretty positive," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said of Tuesday's meeting. "We're in this bunker together."
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who's been presiding over the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said people saw the process as "dynamic."
As a result, he said, "We're welcoming people who want to come to our table and share their ideas, whether they be Democrats, Republicans, nurses, doctors, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, others who have ideas they think can help improve and strengthen our efforts."
Great, Republicans said.
"I think there's a bipartisan agreement that we need to improve the American health care system, but very broad differences of opinion about exactly how to go about that," McConnell said.
"All indications are at this point that the American people would like for us to slow down and try to get this right because of the magnitude of it. I think they're not interested — and have clearly expressed themselves already — in another rush and spend, like we saw on the stimulus package," he added.
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