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Hill Awaits Obama on Health Care

Despite President Barack Obama’s claim Friday that the White House has jumped “with both feet— into the ongoing health care negotiations, Capitol Hill critics are charging the president with treading too lightly and warned that a heavier hand is needed to keep the process on track.

Although some disagree, Senate Democratic sources expressed worries in recent days that the push for health care reform could drown in a sea of Democratic infighting and Republican opposition without more direct presidential involvement. Lobbyists monitoring the health care talks — and some lawmakers — agreed.

“If this is your top domestic agenda item, you’ve got to get your hands dirty,— a senior Democratic Senate aide said. “If you look historically, there’s been too much White House involvement. This time, there hasn’t been enough.—

During a news conference in Italy, where he was attending the G-8 summit, Obama disputed the notion that his leadership has been lacking as Congressional committees struggle to draft health care legislation that can pass the House and Senate. The president has demanded that a bill land on his desk by Oct. 15, but delays are putting that deadline in jeopardy.

“Well, we jumped in with both feet. Our team is working with members of Congress every day on this issue, and it is my highest legislative priority over the next month,— Obama told the traveling White House press corps, according to a transcript of the news conference.

In the House, a rebellion by the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats caused Democratic leaders to delay action on a health care bill pending a resolution of that intraparty conflict.

The 52-member Blue Dog Coalition is concerned about how the overhaul is going to be financed, as well as plans to include a government-run insurance option just as a group of about 70 liberals is threatening to oppose a bill without the public option.

In the Senate, bipartisan negotiations are continuing in the Finance Committee, where Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) is optimistic that disagreements over how to pay for reform — and the government-run insurance option — will be resolved. But the talks have grown difficult enough that the original June markup was abandoned and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) felt obligated to insert himself into the debate.

The Senate process calls for the bill being marked up in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to be merged with the Finance bill — still another potential hurdle to clearing a bill off the Senate floor before the August recess, the Democratic leadership’s official deadline for completing the legislation. As in the House, a battle between conservative and liberal Democrats could be in the offing over the competing bills.

Democratic sources say only Obama can solve these intraparty feuds and potential procedural obstacles, with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) telling reporters that the political risks associated with major health care reform require presidential intervention. Hatch is one of a handful of Republicans working with Baucus on a bipartisan health care bill in Finance.

“Thus far, I think the president’s sitting back seeing what can be done and what can’t be done before he makes a decision. Well, something that affects one-sixth of the American economy is going to take presidential leadership, and it isn’t there right now,— said Hatch, who serves on the Finance and HELP committees.

A White House official on Friday dismissed the criticism, noting the several meetings Obama has had with Democratic and Republican Members and the “deep— involvement of the president’s team, who have been “running back and forth between the White House and the Hill.—

Longtime Congressional observers understand Obama’s desire to avoid the perceived mistakes by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993, the last time major health care reform was attempted. That year, the White House wrote the legislation and sent it to Congress with a directive to approve it.

House and Senate Democratic leaders and a collection of powerful Democratic committee chairmen balked at being told what to do — particularly by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was placed in charge of her husband’s health care initiative. But there is a growing consensus these days that Obama has gone too far the other way, giving the Congress too much deference in the crafting of what he calls his No. 1 legislative priority.

Given the high stakes for lawmakers and the health care industry’s players, only Obama has the influence and political capital to push health care reform across the finish line, said a lobbyist allied with Members on both sides of the aisle. And, this lobbyist said, the time for the president to up his involvement has long since passed.

“The question is, how much is Obama personally getting into the weeds to negotiate the bill?— this source asked. “You’ve got the House going one way to finance this, and the Senate going another way, and Obama’s in Italy?—

But others, particularly Democrats, disagree, saying the president has struck just the right balance and is not yet needed to ensure that a health care bill is signed into law this year.

A second senior Democratic aide said Obama and his team have “wisely— learned the lessons of the past and allowed Congress to take the lead in drafting health care legislation. Concurring, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said a time will come when the heavy hand of the president is both welcome and necessary.

That time, however, has not yet arrived, she said.

“As things go along, given the commitment of the president and the passion of the president, I think he will become more involved, when it’s necessary,— Stabenow said.