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White House Ramps Up Push on Health Bill

WASHINGTON - Proponents of revamping the nation's health care system will hold phone-bank events in 50 states today. Here in the nation's capital, a coalition of more than 100 liberal interest groups will convene its weekly meeting, with health care atop the agenda. Congressional leaders will seek to meld five health care bills into two for House and Senate votes.

Beyond the topic, all the public and private meetings will have one other thing in common: White House involvement.

President Obama will speak from New York City by video hookup to hundreds of small gatherings sponsored by Organizing for America, a spinoff of his 2008 campaign. Top White House aides will attend the regular strategy session of the Common Purpose Project, a coalition headed by former Obama campaign officials to advance his agenda. And when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gather committee leaders to write the legislation, Obama's chief of staff and other aides are at the table.

"We certainly didn't come all this way to slack off now," says White House senior adviser David Axelrod.

It's all part of the strategy for a White House once accused of leaving too much up to Congress. "At first they were too hands off," says Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. "Now I think they're getting it about right."

Republicans in Congress say that Obama hasn't specified what he wants and has left too much up to Reid and Pelosi. They also complain that the process has moved behind closed doors.

"This bill is being written in the dark of night," House GOP leader John Boehner said last week. "The president ought to keep his promise to the American people and open this process up."

The congressional Democrats and liberal activists such as Families USA and Health Care for America Now, however, say the White House hand is felt in many ways, publicly and privately.

Most important, they say, the White House has made it clear to liberal and moderate Democrats that failure is not an option. White House officials closely studied the experience of 1994, when President Clinton and a Democratic Congress could not move a similarly complex health care bill.

"We have a very clear understanding of what happened in 1994," says White House deputy communications director Dan Pfeiffer. "It was failing to deliver when you had the House, the Senate and the White House."

To get a bill through the Senate Finance Committee, leaders had to mollify moderate Democrats such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and one Republican, Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.

That meant doing without a public health insurance option to compete against private insurers, a goal of liberals. The other four bills include the option.

Some Democrats worry such compromises could give away too much. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., says the Finance Committee bill would make it too difficult to change insurance plans. "We've got to keep our eye on the iceberg, which is possible increases in health insurance premiums," he says.

The White House effort starts with Obama, whose main role is to convince Americans to support the effort. He and his top aides, including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, budget director Peter Orszag, Office of Health Reform director Nancy-Ann DeParle and congressional lobbyist Phil Schiliro, also work with lawmakers. The operation is overseen by deputy chief of staff Jim Messina, a former chief of staff for Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont.

The overriding goal, says House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., is to "try to push members to work out differences in order to keep the bill moving."

The effort stumbled in August, when opponents packed town-hall-style meetings held by lawmakers. It relaunched after Obama addressed a joint session of Congress Sept. 9. Now, as action intensifies in Washington, "they want to have people out in the country," says Barbara Kennelly, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

A meeting called by Reid last week to meld the two Senate health care bills had to be moved to a bigger room because the White House sent five people. The second meeting was held Monday night.

"The role that this president has played on health care has been to steer the boat, not to row the boat," says Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. "The administration and the president are getting more into a rowing mode."

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