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Published: Thursday, 3/4/2010

Obama calls on Congress to allow 'up or down' vote


WASHINGTON - President Obama, beginning his final push for a health-care overhaul, called yesterday for Congress to allow an "up or down vote" on the measure, and sketched out an ambitious - and, some Democrats said, unrealistic - timetable for his party to pass a bill on its own within weeks.

"I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on health-care reform," Mr. Obama said during a 20-minute speech in the East Room of the White House. He said there was no point in starting over, as Republicans are demanding, and called on nervous Democrats to stick with him, declaring there is no reason "for those of us who were sent here to lead to just walk away."

The speech, less than a week after Mr. Obama held a high-profile televised health-care forum, will usher in what White House officials say will be their last campaign to bring Washington's long and contentious health-care debate to a close - with a bill-signing ceremony at the end.

Today, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius will meet at the White House with insurance industry executives to spotlight unpopular rate increases; next week, Mr. Obama will travel to Missouri and Pennsylvania to stump for the health-care bill.

In his remarks at the White House, the President refrained from using the word "reconciliation," the parliamentary tactic that Democrats must employ to avoid a Republican filibuster and win final passage with a simple majority vote. But he made clear that was his intent, and used his platform to remind Americans that, despite Republican objections, other major bills had passed in much the same fashion.

"Reform has already passed the House with a majority. It has already passed the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes," Mr. Obama said. "And now it deserves the same kind of up or down vote that was cast on welfare reform, that was cast on the Children's Health Insurance Program, that was used for Cobra health coverage for the unemployed, and, by the way, for both Bush tax cuts - all of which had to pass Congress with nothing more than a simple majority."

Republicans were furious.

"They're making a vigorous effort to try to jam this down the throats of the American people, who don't want it," the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, told reporters after Mr. Obama's remarks. "We think that's a policy mistake, and we think resorting to these kind of tactics, to thumb your noses at the American people, is something that ought to be resisted."

On Capitol Hill, the strategy could prove a heavy lift for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, who are now under pressure from the White House to translate Mr. Obama's wishes for a final bill into legislative language. Both leaders issued statements praising Mr. Obama and vowing to press ahead. But, noticeably, neither publicly committed to Mr. Obama's timetable.

Privately, Senate leadership aides said Mr. Obama's deadline could be difficult to meet. The tentative plan is for the House to adopt a version of the bill passed by the Senate, and for both chambers to use reconciliation to pass a package of changes that would bridge gaps between the initial House and Senate versions.

But the final language must still be sent to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office for evaluation, a process that takes time. Many aspects of the legislation remain unresolved, and rank-and-file Democrats in the House remain deeply uneasy over both the substance of the bill and the process by which it would be adopted.

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