WASHINGTON — Democrats fought with each other Thursday over health care — and Senate leaders put off any final votes until September — as President Barack Obama's party found it difficult to create any momentum from his nationally televised appeal for overhauling the system.
Obama made a strong pitch for his plan at a Wednesday night news conference, the type of White House effort presidents use sparingly but often effectively when an initiative needs a personal push. He continued his campaign Thursday, traveling to Cleveland to promote the cause.
He seemed unbothered by the delay. "That's okay, I just want people to keep on working," Obama said. "I want it done by the end of the year. I want it done by the fall."
Back in Washington, administration officials were trying to stop the bleeding in private talks with lawmakers, while signs were evident throughout the Capitol that Obama's charge hadn't given Congress any jolt.
Among the developments:
- Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives engaged in what participants called a contentious private 90-minute session on the issue.
"People are not focusing on what's in the bill for them, and maybe that's our fault," said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C. However, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., had a different view, calling the meeting "very invigorating."
- Senate Democrats had lots of complaints.
"All the talk is how much we need health care reform. We all agree on that. The problem is how to do it and how to pay for it," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. "That needs to be laid out in crystal clear language."
Asked if Obama did that Wednesday night, Feinstein said, "No."
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who's long been active on health care issues, criticized the Senate Finance Committee for proceeding too slowly. "It's time for them to fish or cut bait," he told Iowa reporters in a conference call.
- "Blue Dog" House Democrats continue to insist on easing the burden on rural interests and small businesses. The group of 52 moderate-to-conservative Democrats has been a big reason the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which considers health care policy, has had a hard time pushing ahead this week.
"We are making progress; however, we have a long way to go," said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., the chairman of the Blue Dog Health Care Task Force, earlier this week.
- Congressional Black Caucus members expressed concern that the push for more cuts in health care spending would fall particularly hard on those who can least afford it.
Del. Donna Christensen, D-Virgin Islands, who heads the caucus' health care initiative, said Thursday that, "When we hear phrases like 'squeezing more savings out of the system' . . . we're concerned that what may be taken out will be provisions that are critical to our communities."
- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., conceded that despite Obama's push earlier this month for an early August vote, it wouldn't happen.
He tried to paint his decision as a bow to Republicans, who've urged him not to rush. Three Republicans, Maine's Olympia Snowe, Iowa's Charles Grassley and Wyoming's Mike Enzi, have been negotiating with Senate Finance Committee Democrats.
"The decision was made to give them more time," Reid said, "and I don't think that's unreasonable."
It was also evidence, however, that a lot of hard bargaining remains.
"This is not going to be easy. It's a complex issue," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill. He and other leaders tried to push the idea that Obama did make a difference. "It was a momentum changer," Durbin said.
Pelosi was ebullient, saying she had the votes to pass some kind of health care plan.
"I feel very confident, more confident than ever," she said.
The White House hope was that Obama could use his still-high approval rating — 57 percent in the July 9-13 Ipsos-McClatchy poll — to give Congress an extra push. He hoped his personal touch, explaining what the changes would mean in lay terms, also would help.
Democrats tried to follow up his remarks Thursday by having two consumers appear at Senate leaders' weekly news conference.
Regina Holliday of Washington told a news conference how she and her husband worked several jobs and could not afford insurance. Her husband was diagnosed with cancer in January and died six months later.
"Would access to an affordable family insurance made a difference in our case? I think so," she said, since it would have made it easier for her husband to see a primary care physician sooner.
Kathy DeVincentis, of nearby Delaware, described how, despite being healthy all her life, she found that when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, "the whole (system) failed me."
She had a difficult time getting insurance, finally buying a policy with a $1,000 monthly premium and a $5,000 deductible.
"Congress needs to pass health reform so no woman has to die from breast cancer because she can't afford care," DeVincentis said.
(William Douglas contributed to this article.)
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