President Obama began his meeting with leading House progressives by bringing in a letter from an Ohio woman who wrote him to say that her skyrocketing premiums will soon cause her to lose her health insurance.
"It was a very serious, low-key discussion. If this was a piano, you're hearing very deep chords here," said one member who asked for anonymity.
Obama argued to the group of progressive members that his health care reform bill should be looked at as the foundation of reform, that can be built on in the future. He asked them to help gather votes for the final health care battle and promised that as soon as the bill was signed into law, he'd continue to push to make it stronger. But in a matter of weeks, he stressed, he could sign into law legislation that would lead to 31 million new people being insured, including the woman who wrote him.
It has been surprising to some people that he is still fighting for health care reform, Obama told the group. "He said, and I think he's absolutely right, that a lot of people, I think, are surprised at his persistence that in some ways this health care reform has been lifted from the near dead to becoming a reality in the next couple of weeks," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). "He said, quite specifically, that what we could say to people was that once the bill passes the president made a commitment to work to make improvements down the road."
Attendees included Reps. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.) and Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-chairs; Schakowsky and Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.), the CPC's Health Care Task Force co-chair; Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; Rep. Mike Honda (Calif.), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus; and Reps. Madeleine Bordallo (Guam), Donna Christensen (Virgin Islands), Danny Davis (Ill.), Dennis Kucinich (Ohio) and Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.), Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair.
Of those, only Kucinich voted no, but Christensen and Bordallo don't have a vote on the House floor. None of the members, including Kucinich, indicated that they would vote any differently this time around. "I think [Kucinich] left the meeting leaving the impression with the president that he's a no-go," said Schakowsky.
But, said one attendee, Obama pointed Kucinich toward single-payer language that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was able to get into the bill. Kucinich fought for an amendment that would allow states to adopt single-payer systems without getting sued by insurance companies. Obama told Kucinich that Sanders's measure was similar but doesn't kick in for several years. "He definitely wrote it down," said one member of Kucinich, suggesting that he'd look into it.
The meeting was entirely non-confrontational, said members who were present, but Grijalva did raise the issue of the public option.
"He just said that the public option, something that he has supported along the way, is not something that we can pass. And he emphasized the fact that the decision now is between doing as much as we can do and doing nothing. That's it. He thought the whole foundation thing -- that this is definitely something we could be proud of, something we could build off [of]," said Schakowsky.
Woolsey told Obama that she'd be introducing legislation to create a public option and Obama said he encouraged the effort, according to Schakowsky.
On Wednesday, Grijalva threatened to vote no on the bill because it gave too much away to the GOP and didn't include a public option. That threat was not made to Obama, two members said. "He certainly didn't indicate at all that he was going to be a no vote. I did not get that sense," said Schakowsky.
Obama's handling of the meeting impressed Schakowsky who, as a fellow Chicago-area politician, has known him for some time. "He was totally engaged. And he's really good at that," she said. "No matter what else was on his plate, he's totally present."
Update: Responding to the president's claim that the votes aren't there to pass a public option, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's Adam Green emails over the following statement:
Obama is telling America, "No, we can't." But we've been showing more and more each day, "Yes, we can" pass the public option. If President Obama doesn't think the votes exist in the Senate, he needs to name which senators would oppose it. If he can't or won't, there's no reason for House progressives to be part of the White House's loser mentality