WASHINGTON - With support from his own party in doubt, President Barack Obama summoned more than a dozen House Democrats to the White House Thursday and pleaded with them to put aside their qualms and vote for his massive health care overhaul.
It's the opportunity of a generation, he told them - and a chance to revive the party's agenda after his rough first year in office.
In back-to-back meetings in the Oval Office and Roosevelt Room, Obama urged uneasy rank-and-file moderates and progressives to focus on the positives rather than their deep disappointment with parts of the bill. The lawmakers said Obama assured them the legislation was merely the first step, and he promised to work with them in the future to improve its provisions.
"The president very pointedly talked about how important this is historically," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), "how he needs our help." Obama told them that "this is an opportunity, it'll give us momentum" on other issues, Grijalva said.
Cranking up the pressure, congressional leaders said they were hoping for votes on the legislation in as soon as two or three weeks.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters he believes the House is on schedule to approve the landmark legislation by March 18, when the president leaves for an Asian trip, and he can sign it into law "shortly thereafter."
Obama's revved-up personal involvement, along with the cautious tone of congressional leaders' forecasts, illustrated the uncertainty still facing the president's yearlong drive to push his signature legislative initiative through Congress.
Democratic leaders want Congress to send Obama the nearly $1-trillion health overhaul that the Senate passed in December, plus a separate bill making changes that House Democrats want. But there's no decision yet on exactly what that second measure will look like.Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, said a March 18 House vote was possible, but he added, "Until we have something concrete, it's difficult to ask people, 'Can you support this?' "