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Obama Makes Health Care Pitch to Small Business, House Liberals

President Barack Obama on Thursday met with small-business owners and officials at the White House, hoping to sell the traditionally GOP-friendly group on his health care reform proposals.

The session comes on the same day Obama will pitch his ideas to a very different audience, meeting at 5:05 p.m. at the White House with members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

A source familiar with the late afternoon gathering with lawmakers said part of the intent is for Obama to assuage the concerns of House liberals. Many are unhappy about the Democratic leadership’s decision to include in the bill a public option that would require the federal government to negotiate rates with health care providers instead of pegging them to Medicare.

The session with small business, ostensibly about health care, is also viewed as an olive branch to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, with which the White House has been engaged in a war of words. Chamber members, in addition to members of the National Federation of Independent Business, were invited to the event, and the two trade associations were asked for their assistance in setting it up.

In his remarks to small-business officials, Obama struck at the heart of their concerns about health legislation emerging from Capitol Hill, arguing that the vast majority of small businesses will be exempt from mandated coverage.

“Now, it is true that when reform becomes law, businesses of a certain size who do not offer their workers health coverage may be required to contribute to the costs, and that makes a lot of small-business owners nervous,— Obama said. “Opponents of reform have tried to say you’d be subject to this penalty and it could drive up your costs. But the fact is … about 90 percent of all small businesses would be exempt from this requirement.—

But small-business officials say they are wary of the legislation and its mandates, and an aide to House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) suggested Obama’s figures on how many small businesses are affected are themselves misleading. “What [he] fails to mention is that those small businesses that are taxed employ the most people,— spokeswoman Antonia Ferrier said.

The president noted that the legislation would include a tax credit for small businesses to provide health insurance and said small businesses would be able to pool together to buy insurance under health care “exchanges.—

Obama also took a moment to celebrate the latest gross domestic product figures showing the economy grew during the third quarter at a rate of 3.5 percent.

“I am gratified that our economy grew in the third quarter of this year,— the president said. “We have come a long way— since the days of negative growth last year, he said.

Obama said the figures are “welcome news and an affirmation that the recession is abating and the steps we’ve taken made a difference.—

But, with unemployment still rising — and Republicans slamming him for it — Obama was careful to say the critical judgment on the economy is “whether we’re creating jobs.—

In a separate statement released by the White House, Obama applauded House Democrats for health care legislation unveiled Thursday, commending its inclusion of a public insurance option.

“The House legislation includes critical reforms to the insurance industry so that Americans will no longer have to worry that they will be denied coverage, or that their coverage will be dropped or watered down when they need it most,— Obama said. “I’m also pleased that the bill includes a public option offered in an exchange. As I’ve said throughout this process, a public option that competes with private insurers is the best way to ensure choice and competition that are so badly needed in today’s market.—

Obama singled out for praise the chairmen of the three committees that produced initial bills — Reps. Henry Waxman, (D-Calif.), Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and George Miller (D-Calif.) — as well as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.).