WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama, facing challenges to his ambitious health care overhaul from Congress, is visiting supporters outside the capital and turning to them to muster up momentum for one of his top legislative priorities.
Obama on Thursday readied to fly to Green Bay, Wis., to talk directly with voters about his proposals to spend $1.5 trillion over the next decade to cover uninsured Americans. Administration aides said the visit was designed for Obama to build support for a health care overhaul that has eluded Democrats for decades, as well to inject a personal angle into a debate that affects some 50 million Americans without insurance.
Obama's trip comes as a possible compromise emerged in the Senate to one of the most vexing obstacles in the health care reform debate. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., offered a plan to create health care cooperatives owned by groups of residents and small businesses. They would operate as nonprofits and without the government involvement that troubles Republicans and others about other public plan options. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, said Wednesday the idea could be key to a bipartisan health bill.
Administration officials said the president's speech in Green Bay would contain no new policies, but would instead put Obama — and the traveling White House press corps — in position to hear directly from people who are affected in the existing system. Those stories, Obama's political aides said, would be key to selling the final product.
"When the debate heats up — which it is already is beginning to — the most powerful thing that we have at the grass roots level are people's stories," said Dan Grandone, a political aide who runs Obama's re-election campaign-in-waiting in Wisconsin.
Ahead of Obama's trip, aides at the Democratic National Committee organized a conference call for a Muskego, Wis., woman to share her story with reporters. Kristine Reger's husband owns a small business and struggles to pay health care premiums for his employees; her sister racked up a $17,000 medical bill despite insurance.
"The time really is now," Reger said, urging Congress to take action.
Green Bay resident Laura Klitzka, a 35-year-old, married mother of two, was set to introduce Obama at a town hall-style meeting. Klitzka has metastatic breast cancer and carries about $12,000 in unpaid medical bills.
Before leaving Washington, the White House released a biography on Klitzka, saying "she doesn't want to lose their house over her illness and while she knows she won't be able to see her children grow up, she wants to be sure the time she has left with them is quality and not spent worrying about health care bills."
Such emotional pleas will be part of the hard sell Obama's supporters will employ in coming weeks. Although Obama publicly maintains all options are on the table — a posture he repeated when he met with senators at the White House on Wednesday — he has approved his political arm to push ahead with a strong political campaign in support of his favored positions.
Obama's grass-roots machine, known as Organizing for America, has collected hundreds of thousands of similar stories that eventually could shame lawmakers who don't sign onto Obama's broad plan.
"What we're doing right now is we're really priming the pump. I mean, we will ramp this activity up, we'll make more explicit calls for people to call members of Congress — every member of Congress that we can get a call into — as we approach key votes," Grandone said.
Obama has set a deadline of this year to pass health care legislation. He heads to Chicago on Monday to address the American Medical Association. He recently told political supporters during a private conference call that if reform doesn't happen this year, the opportunity would pass.