WASHINGTON- President Barack Obama said on Sunday he will hold a meeting with Democratic and Republican lawmakers to discuss ways to move forward on legislation to overhaul the healthcare system.
Obama's effort to expand health coverage hit a stalemate after Democrats lost their 60-seat supermajority in the Senate as a result of a Massachusetts special election in January. They are now trying to decide on a new course.
Obama insisted in an interview with CBS News that he was not backing down on his push to revamp the healthcare system and said it was crucial for the economy to rein in health costs longer term.
He said the aim of the half-day February 25 meeting, which will be televised live, will be to go through systematically all the best ideas that are out there and try to move forward on the legislation.
Obama said he wanted to ask Republicans specific questions about how they would propose to lower costs, extend coverage to the uninsured and revise insurance rules so that people with existing medical conditions would be able to get coverage.
Democrats, who are facing congressional elections in November, are looking to Obama for direction on whether he would want to try to break the logjam on the existing bill or seek new legislation. Some analysts say starting fresh with new legislation could doom the bill in an election year but getting the current bill back on track would also likely be very difficult.
In the interview with CBS's Katie Couric, Obama did not delve into specifics about what would happen after the meeting. But he said soliciting ideas from Republicans was important to the process.
If we can go step-by-step through a series of these issues and arrive at some agreements, then procedurally there's no reason why we can't do it a lot faster than the process took last year, Obama said.
REPUBLICAN URGES CURRENT BILL BE SHELVED
Reacting to Obama's comments, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he welcomed the chance to share ideas with Obama but said shelving the current bill would be the best way to try to arrive at a consensus.
Putting aside the current bill would be a sign that the administration and Democrats in Congress are listening to the country and are truly interested in a bipartisan approach, McConnell said in a statement.
Obama said that surging health care costs were beating down families and businesses, and will become a huge drain on the economy if they are not brought under control.
Obama last week unveiled his new budget that included forecasts for a record $1.6 trillion deficit for the 2010 fiscal year and a shortfall of $1.3 trillion in 2011.
If we can start bending the cost curves on health care, that's the most important thing we can do to deal with the deficits long term, Obama said.
Obama has been criticized by Republicans for not living up to his campaign promise to hold televised sessions on the healthcare bill. Many of the Democratic negotiating sessions have taken place behind closed doors.
A U.S. official said the February 25 session would be a half-day meeting.
While he's been very clear that he supports the House and Senate bills, if Republicans or anyone else has a plan for protecting Americans from insurance company abuses, lowering costs, reducing prescription drug prices for seniors, making coverage more secure, and offering affordable options to those without coverage, he's anxious to see it and debate the merits of it, the official said.
Obama also said in the interview that the United States was seeing the corner turn on the economy.
His comments came after a government report on Friday showed a drop in the U.S. unemployment rate to 9.7 percent in January from 10 percent in December.
(Writing by Caren Bohan; additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton and Paul Eckert; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)