WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, hoping to move the health-care debate to its final stages, called on lawmakers to schedule a vote in the next few weeks.
"No matter which approach you favor, I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on health-care reform," Mr. Obama said. "We have debated this issue thoroughly, not just for a year, but for decades."
He called for Congress to press ahead with a comprehensive bill, which means using a legislative vehicle called reconciliation, which requires just 51 Senate votes. But he didn't use the term reconciliation, instead calling for a simple "up or down vote."
The president made many of the same points he's made over the last year-plus of debate, appealing to frustration with insurance companies.
"I don't believe we can afford to leave life-and-death decisions about health care to the discretion of insurance-company executives alone," he said to an audience of health-care experts assembled in the East Room. "I believe that doctors and nurses like the ones in this room should be free to decide what's best for their patients."
Mr. Obama, who repeated his pledge to incorporate some Republican ideas in the health package, urged lawmakers to put aside politics, saying they need to show an ability to tackle tough issues.
"I know there's a fascination, bordering on obsession, in the media and in this town about what passing health-insurance reform would mean for the next election and the one after that," he said. "Well, I'll leave others to sift through the politics. Because that's not what this is about. That's not why we're here."
Republicans, though, remain staunchly opposed, saying they want a much more modest plan, not their ideas added to the sweeping Democratic bill. He also said that his plan eliminates special deals that came under fire, implicitly blaming his allies in Congress for including them in the first place.
"My proposal also gets rid of many of the provisions that had no place in health-care reform—provisions that were more about winning individual votes in Congress than improving health care for all Americans," he said.
Democrats face an especially tough fight in the House, where the ranks of the undecided also include some lawmakers who voted yes before but say they no longer favor the Democratic bill.
Republicans rejected Mr. Obama's latest overture and repeated their call for the president to start over on health care.
In a letter sent Tuesday to congressional leaders of both parties, Mr. Obama said he was open to including several GOP ideas, including provisions to fight waste and fraud in federal health programs, such as undercover investigations, as proposed by Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.). He also was open to giving states more money to experiment with alternatives to medical-malpractice lawsuits, an idea popular among Republicans. And he said he would consider further support for health savings accounts, another GOP favorite.
At the same time, Mr. Obama acknowledged deep disagreements with Republicans over the scope of the bill and regulation of insurance companies. Aides say those differences are too deep to resolve and Democrats will have to act alone.
The White House hopes to win public support—and wavering Democrats—by painting the process as open and collaborative.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Congress needs to give more attention to reducing the growth of health costs. "This would not do that," he said of the White House offer.
Sen. Coburn, in a letter back to the president, said his fraud suggestion "is insufficient to stanch the flow of taxpayer dollars into the hands of criminals."
The White House goal is to see a bill through Congress before lawmakers leave for the Easter recess late this month. "There will not be a particularly long runway between Wednesday and when this comes to a conclusion in one way or another," a senior White House aide said on Tuesday.