Democrats prepare to push health care without GO

WASHINGTON -- Publicly, President Barack Obama is still calling for a bipartisan bill to overhaul the nation's health care system. Privately, Democrats are preparing a one-party push, which they feel is all but inevitable.

Obama urged religious leaders Wednesday to back his proposals, and he prepared for a pep talk to a much larger audience of liberal activists, whose enthusiasm is in question. Polls continued to show slippage in support for the president's approach, although Americans expressed even less confidence in Republicans' handling of health care.

The administration said it still hopes for a bipartisan breakthrough on its goals of expanding health coverage, controlling costs and increasing competition among insurers. In private, however, top Democrats said a bipartisan accord seems less likely than ever when Congress reconvenes next month.

Obama was to promote his plans Thursday in a conference call and online address to supporters that could draw huge numbers of listeners. He also was to speak with Philadelphia-based radio talk show host Michael Smerconish, who will broadcast from the White House. Smerconish is generally seen as a conservative, although he endorsed Obama last year and supports abortion rights.

Vice President Joe Biden was meeting with health care professionals in Chicago on Thursday to push the administration's proposals. He also planned to announce nearly $1.2 billion in grants to help hospitals transition to electronic medical records. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was to join him.

Some Democrats said Democratic researchers have concluded lately that a strong-arm tactic on Senate health care legislation that would negate the need for any GOP votes might be more effective than previously thought.

The strategy, called "reconciliation," allows senators to get around a bill-killing filibuster without mustering the 60 votes usually needed. Democrats control 60 of the Senate's 100 seats, but some moderate Senate Democrats have expressed reservations about the Democratic-backed health care overhaul plan.

And two of their members - Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts - are seriously ill and often absent. Kennedy sent a letter Tuesday to Massachusetts leaders asking that they change state law to allow someone to be quickly appointed to his seat in Congress "should a vacancy occur."

While always contentious, reconciliation lets the Senate pass some measures with a simple majority vote. Non-budget-related items can be challenged, however, and some lawmakers say reconciliation would knock so many provisions from Obama's health care plan that the result would be "Swiss cheese."

Democratic aides say they increasingly believe those warnings are overblown.

On Wednesday, Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., warned Republicans that reconciliation is a real option. The White House and Senate Democratic leaders still prefer a bipartisan bill, he said, but "patience is not unlimited and we are determined to get something done this year by any legislative means necessary."

In a conference call with liberal religious leaders Wednesday, Obama called health coverage for Americans a "core ethical and moral obligation." He disputed claims that Democratic bills would create government "death panels" for the elderly, offer health care for illegal immigrants or fund abortions.


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