Bracing for an August showdown over health care reform, Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama declared themselves united Tuesday on their determination to enact an historic overhaul this year -- ideally with Republican cooperation but without if necessary.
With his top domestic priority hanging in the balance, Obama summoned Senate Democrats to the White House for a luncheon cheerleading session on health care and other pending issues.
Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who is leading bipartisan compromise talks on health care, said Obama told the senators he prefers a bill with support from both parties. But the president also said, "it may get to a point where we ... go in a different direction," Baucus added, referring to the possibility of a measure drafted to Democratic specifications.
Other Democrats said Obama mentioned no specific deadline for success in the bipartisan negotiations, and did not endorse a Sept. 15 date that officials have said Baucus declared last week. The Finance Committee chairman is under pressure from the White House as well as fellow Democrats to produce an agreement quickly.
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House members left last week for their August recess, and senators follow this week. The lengthy recess, which finds lawmakers back home in their districts listening to constituents, could become a turning point in the divisive debate over the sweeping health care overhaul that Obama wants.
Voters are expected to make known their growing doubts about Obama's push. Among the emotional issues driving those doubts are fears about government-run insurance plans, a growing federal deficit, the impact on small businesses, abortion and end-of-life provisions. Political parties and special interest groups will add to the cacophony by spending millions of dollars on competing ads.
The White House intends to counter those influences aggressively throughout the month. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, for instance, that he believes some groups are "manufacturing that anger."
This week, before the debate crystallizes outside of Washington, the White House hopes to build as much momentum as possible.
"There was absolute unity," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at the White House after the talks with Obama. "Different ideas were expressed, but every idea was that we understand that before year's end we're going to get comprehensive health care reform."
Reid likened the meeting to a pep talk from a coach. "We're ready to take on the world," he said.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama told the senators that passing health reform legislation would be among the most important things they would ever do in the Senate -- and that signing it would be among the most important things he would do as president.
Reid said that a bipartisan bill is the goal, "if there's any way humanly possible" given the "loud, shrill voices" aiming to derail the process. But he and the other senators gathered around him also said health care reform would happen without bipartisan support if it wasn't possible.
"The preference is do it together," Baucus said shortly after the White House meeting. "The American people do not like partisanship. But the American people also don't like groups of people trying to kill something that should be done, should get passed. ... So we're going to get it done."
Several Democrats said there was almost no discussion at the White House meeting about controversial elements of the bill, such as the role of government in the insurance market.
Democrats and the White House have sought recently to emphasize the consumer-friendly provisions that would be included in any bill.
Baucus said the bipartisan negotiators have agreed insurance companies would not be permitted to charge higher premiums on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions, just as they could not deny coverage on those grounds.
Higher premiums would be allowed on the basis of age, a provision also included in legislation approved earlier this year by the Senate Health, Education and Pensions Committee, and in a bill expected on the House floor in the fall.
AP Special Correspondent David Espo contributed to this report.