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Obama calls for talks with GOP on health care, then vote by Congress

President Obama said Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were working out differences in bills already passed.
President Obama said Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were working out differences in bills already passed.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Obama: Democratic leaders in House, Senate working out differences in two bills
  • After that, president wants Republicans to present their ideas
  • It's first clear signal from Democrats how they want to proceed after Senate seat loss
  • Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts gives GOP 41 senators, enough to filibuster Senate bill

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama called Thursday for high-level talks with Republicans to work out a compromise on health care legislation, then putting the resulting bill to a vote in Congress.

"If Congress decides we're not going to do it, even after all the facts are laid out, after all the options are clear, then the American people can make a judgment as to whether this Congress has done the right thing for them or not," Obama said. "That's how democracy works."

Obama's comments were the first clear signal from the White House or Democrats in Congress on how they would proceed on a top legislative priority after losing their 60-seat super-majority in the Senate.

Republican Scott Brown was sworn in as the new U.S. senator from Massachusetts earlier Thursday, leaving the Democrats one vote shy of being able to overcome GOP filibusters of health care reform and other major initiatives.

Asked at a party fund-raising event about the Democratic strategy for health care reform going forward, Obama said Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were working out differences in the separate health care bills passed by each chamber last year.

Once that was finished, Obama said, the next step would be "to call on our Republican friends to present their ideas."

"What I'd like to do is to have a meeting whereby I'm sitting with the Republicans, sitting with the Democrats, sitting with health care experts, and let's just go through these bills -- their ideas, our ideas -- and walk through them and in a methodical way so that the American people can see and compare," Obama said.

"And then I think we've got to go ahead and move forward on a vote," he added. "We've got to move forward on a vote."

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A White House official acknowledged later Thursday that this was new language from Obama to offer a possible scenario for health care talks to move forward. However, the official stressed it was "not a new strategy" for the White House to coalesce behind, and aides were still mulling various options to complete action on health care legislation.

Democrat leaders in Congress have struggled to come up with a consensus strategy since the party lost its super-majority in the Senate. Republicans have unanimously opposed the health care bills so far, meaning Democrats would be unable to pass a bill through the Senate because of a certain GOP filibuster.

Brown, now the 41st Republican senator to give the GOP its unstoppable filibuster ability, said Thursday after his swearing-in that Congress should start over on the health care issue instead of continuing to work on existing proposals.

Republicans complain the comprehensive Democratic health care bills would lead to a government takeover of health care. They call for smaller steps focused on individual issues, such as limiting medical malpractice lawsuits.

Democrats, however, say that spiraling health care costs that threaten the nation's future economic stability can only be addressed through comprehensive reform.

Obama said Thursday the Democratic bill that will emerge from the House-Senate talks on joining their two proposals would expand coverage to at least 30 million Americans who lack health insurance while reducing long-term health care costs.

The measure would include an insurance exchange to allow people and small business owners to pool together to purchase coverage, Obama said, but he made no mention of a government-run public health insurance option that Republicans have rallied against.

Obama said the Democratic bill would include reforms that prevent insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing medical conditions or capping lifetime benefits.

"And by the way, all of it is paid for," Obama said. "Not only is it deficit-neutral, but the Congressional Budget Office, which is the bipartisan office that is the scorekeeper for much things cost in Congress, says it is going to reduce the costs by $1 trillion."

Obama called health care reform the "single best way to bring down our deficits," adding "nobody has disputed that."

"Nobody can dispute the fact that if we don't tackle surging health care costs, then we can't control our budget," he said.

While Democrats from both chambers have been working together to merge their two bills, alternative strategies also have been discussed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week that the chamber would vote next week on one provision of its health care bill, which would drop the current anti-trust exemption for the insurance industry that allows practices such as market allocation.

The Senate bill would maintain the anti-trust exemption, so it was unclear whether the House's limited first step would win approval there. However, Democratic aides have said that House Democrats want to keep momentum on health care going in coming weeks.

CNN's Ed Henry contributed to this story.

 
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