WASHINGTON President Barack Obama delivered a pep talk to a bipartisan group of senators negotiating a healthcare overhaul on Thursday as the U.S. Senate headed on vacation without a deal on his top domestic priority.
At the Capitol, Obama adviser David Axelrod also coached Senate Democrats on how to deal with angry opponents of the healthcare proposals during a monthlong August congressional recess that has both sides gearing up for a public relations battle.
Obama invited the so-called "Gang of Six" senators -- three Democrats and three Republicans -- to the White House to offer encouragement a day after saying he would be willing to push ahead without Republicans if there is no agreement by September.
"He wants us to keep working together," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat who has led the negotiations, told reporters after the meeting with Obama.
The six senators plan to keep up long-distance negotiations -- and possibly even some face-to-face sessions -- during the break.
"He prefers a bipartisan agreement, I do, and I think most members of the Democratic caucus do, too, and it's just a question of how we get there," Baucus said of Obama.
Obama's push for healthcare legislation has been attacked by critics over its $1 trillion cost and scope, with Republicans calling it a government takeover of the U.S. healthcare system that would drive up the budget deficit.
Democrats have feuded over how to pay for it and whether to include a new government-run insurance program, and Obama's popularity has slipped as the debate dragged on.
Obama says the package is vital to a U.S. economic recovery and wants to sign by the end of the year a measure that would rein in healthcare costs, regulate insurance practices and expand coverage to most of the 46 million uninsured Americans.
No Republicans have backed the proposals being crafted in Congress, and lawmakers holding public information sessions in their home states and towns have faced sometimes hostile and angry opponents.
Axelrod, Obama's top political adviser, traveled to the Capitol to help coach Democrats on how to approach the August break and the potentially hostile opponents. Senators said they were ready for the challenge.
'PRETTY GOOD IDEA'
"I have a feeling most members have a pretty good idea how to handle it," Democratic Senator Chris Dodd told reporters.
"My sense is people are going back to their respective states with a high degree of confidence about what we stand for and what we believe in and what most Americans care for and believe in," he said.
The White House and Democrats have called the protests an orchestrated "mob" driven by Republican- and industry-backed groups and conservative talk radio and television hosts.
"They have been sent by their corporate and lobbyist bankrollers to disrupt, heckle and block meaningful debate. This is a desperation move, meant to slow the momentum for change," said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO labor group.
Democratic groups and advocates of healthcare reform have promised their own grass-roots initiatives to build support, and Obama has asked supporters to pitch in and help the effort during the August recess.
Three committees in the House of Representatives, which adjourned last week, and one Senate committee have passed versions of the healthcare bill, while the Senate Finance Committee is still at work.
Baucus said Obama was "very positive, very upbeat" during the White House meeting, which was attended by Republican Senators Charles Grassley, Olympia Snowe and Mike Enzi.
"It was very good, he was very relaxed, not pushy, not demanding, not forceful, but very persuasive," Baucus said.
Snowe said Obama "appreciated the attempt toward crafting a bipartisan package."
The negotiators will take stock of where the talks stand once the Senate reconvenes during the first week of September, Baucus said. "The hope is that we are all there together," Baucus added. "We have to face reality -- it is possible that we may not be."
(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Will Dunham)