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Exclusive: Sebelius Says Obama Will 'Accelerate' Health Care Reform After Bipartisan Meeting

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Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said on Monday that President Obama is willing to "add various elements" to health care legislation suggested by Republican lawmakers during an upcoming bipartisan meeting on the topic. But he won't change the entire plan and he is "absolutely not" hitting the reset button on the legislative process, the former Kansas governor insisted.

In a brief interview with the Huffington Post following a speech to an audience of health care professionals, Sebelius said that the president views the bipartisan meeting as a needed pivot to move reform forward. Asked if he will expedite the legislative process following his various sit-downs with congressional Republicans, she replied:

"I certainly think so. I think he sees this as a step to actually accelerating the process forward. He wants to move forward. He wants a bill at his desk and he sees this as kind of closing the loop and let's go."

Minutes earlier, in a speech to the Health Affair's National Health Policy Conference, Sebelius pointedly criticized Republican lawmakers for not constructively participating in the health care debate, even after the policy elements they found objectionable were eliminated from the legislation.

"We have to get, frankly, the Republican members of the House and Senate to re-engage in this process," she declared. "I think it is not acceptable that half of the legislative body pushed away from the table when this conversation began months ago and basically said, 'We don't want to participate in this process.' If you remember, for a long time, the discussion was, 'Well, we don't want to participate in anything that has a public option in it.'... Well, as far as I have determined, the public option is no longer part of the plan and yet no one has come back to the table and said, 'We will now talk about how to move forward with a private market strategy.'"

On Sunday, the president announced that he will host a group of Republican lawmakers this week to discuss health care reform, to be followed by a bipartisan gathering of congressional leadership on February 25. According to Sebelius, Obama is hopeful that the gathering will produce constructive suggestions or amendments and not, as she deemed it, "a scattershot approach" of picking at various aspects of the bill. Asked by HuffPost how this forum will differ from the bipartisan Gang of Six negotiations among Senate Finance Committee members that carried on fruitlessly for months, she replied:

"There were six senators in a room for a number of months. There wasn't the House leadership of Republicans; there wasn't the Senate leadership of Republicans in that room. And I think that the president wants to say: 'Rather than just sitting on the sidelines and saying "We don't like this, we don't like that," come forward and show us your plan.'"

In her speech, Health and Human Services Secretary echoed Obama's pledge that getting health care reform passed has not been moved to the political back-burner following the Democratic Party's loss in the Massachusetts Senate election. The process, Sebelius acknowledged, has been tripped up due to various political factors. Tellingly, the one element she singled out was the occasionally noxious, often secretive bill-writing process that took place in Congress.

"[It] has been confusing to a lot of folks," she acknowledged. "When you talk to people... about what are the elements that are in both the House and Senate bills, there is overwhelming support for those measures to be enacted. When people watch up close and personal the activity of Congress, I think they tend to be not only confused but sometimes disgusted with the whole process and they don't want anything to do with it. And they think that whatever is going on can't possibly be good for them or their families."

As for fixing the bill and getting legislation passed, Sebelius followed the lead of other administration officials and offered no real specifics. There was no discussion about the use of reconciliation in the Senate to get amendments passed into law. Nor was there talk about why vulnerable House members would be smart to back the bill. Sebelius instead spoke generally about the need to keep the legislation's intertwining parts together -- warning, for example, that eliminating an insurer's ability to discriminate against pre-existing conditions without requiring everyone to purchase insurance doesn't substitute for reform.

Hoping to drum up optimism, she drew parallels between passing health care reform legislation and planning for today's conference.

"There is a lot in common between working and planning for months and having a clear agenda and knowing exactly what you are going to do and then having 30 inches of snow interrupt that planning," she said, referring to the historic snowfall that hit Washington D.C. this past weekend. "It sort of feels like the day after the Massachusetts election."

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