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Obama’s Team Still Hunting for GOP Votes

Brushing aside the failure of Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to secure Republican support for his initial health bill draft, the White House is still aggressively seeking GOP backing and hoping to avoid a completely partisan Senate floor vote under reconciliation.

President Barack Obama and his aides continue to carefully cultivate Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a member of the Finance Committee. Snowe is viewed as the most likely Republican to jump ship from the nearly unified Senate and House GOP opposition to Obama’s health agenda. She met with Obama at the White House within the last two weeks, sources said, and has publicly suggested that she talks to the president frequently.

But the aggressive White House outreach to the GOP goes beyond Snowe. Soon after Obama’s Sept. 9 health care speech to Congress, Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine had coffee at the White House for about 45 minutes with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. Last week she shared dinner at Pier 7 Restaurant in Washington with Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, who is playing a significant role in the White House lobbying effort.

But so far no Republicans have endorsed the legislation.

“During her recent meetings with administration officials, Senator Collins discussed her concerns with the overall size, scope and costs of the health care reform proposals that are currently being considered,— said Collins spokesman Kevin Kelley. “She does not believe they do enough to lower health care costs for all Americans,— Kelley added, but “she appreciates the administration’s openness to her thoughts on how to expand access to affordable health care coverage and to reform our health care system to improve outcomes and lower costs.—

There remains deep concern among Democrats and at the White House about passing such a major piece of legislation without the cover of any GOP support.

“Getting a Republican will help keep the Democrats in line,— said one veteran Senate aide. “Try to think of any significant, controversial legislation that has passed solely with Democratic votes.—

White House and senior Senate Democratic aides view the Baucus bill as the primary template for a final Senate bill, with provisions from legislation passed over the summer by Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to be added into the Finance measure, and not the reverse. The Baucus bill generally conforms to Obama’s principles, and with a price tag lower than other Democratic bills, is viewed as the only chance for picking up a Republican and holding moderate Democrats.

In a sign of the aggressive courting centered on Snowe, the chairman’s mark released by Baucus on Tuesday includes nearly a dozen amendments partially or wholly proposed by her — more than most Democrats were given.

Sources familiar with the White House strategy said the president’s aides are focused above all on getting legislation moving. Officials describe a “do-whatever-it-takes— posture to get a bill out of the Finance Committee and then passed by the Senate and into conference.

A similar attitude reigns on the House side, according to one House Democratic leadership aide, who said the White House is agnostic on whether the House bill should be moderated before it goes to conference or stay where it is — well to the left of the Baucus measure.

This source said the current plan is for the House to move the legislation first, but almost simultaneously with the Senate bill, sometime in early to mid-October. He noted, though, that the plan was tentative.

Emanuel continues his behind-the-scenes role in the White House effort, burning up phone lines to Senate offices and hideaways. “In every meeting, some Senator says they just talked to Rahm,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

Also leading the White House drive on Capitol Hill are Congressional liaison Phil Schiliro and White House health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle.

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