On the Hill

ON THE HILL…. President Obama made a fairly rare visit to Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon, pressing the Senate Democratic caucus on health care reform. By all accounts, the president didn’t tell the lawmakers how to pass a bill; he told them to pass a bill.

In the closed meeting with Senate Democrats, Mr. Obama summarized the achievements of Congress this year and cited evidence that the economy was improving, senators who attended the meeting said. Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana and chairman of the Finance Committee, quoted the president as saying that the health care bill was “the most important social legislation since Social Security.”

Lawmakers who vote for it will be rewarded in the 2010 elections and by the judgment of the nation in 20, 30 or 40 years, the president said, according to Mr. Baucus.

Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the assistant Democratic leader, said the president’s message was simple: “He reminded us why we are here. He reminded us why we run for office. And he reminded us how many people are counting on us to come through.”

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, said Mr. Obama had risen above “the day-to-day trench warfare of the Senate” and placed the legislation “in the sweep of history.”

“Decades from now,” the president said, according to Mr. Whitehouse, “this will be the kind of vote you remember. It will be written in the faces of children and families who are relieved of the burden of anxiety and sorrow.”

Of course, when the president emphasizes the “sweep of history,” he’s not focusing any attention on the granular details. That means, Obama spoke to the larger significance of the effort, and still wants lawmakers to resolve specific disputes — abortion, public option, immigration, cost controls, mandates, Medicare commission, etc. — on their own.

This big-picture approach delighted Joe Lieberman, who took the president’s silence on the public option as evidence that the White House isn’t attached to the provision.

Pettiness aside, the obvious question is whether the president’s “pep talk” made a difference. Several senators expressed enthusiasm — Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Obama’s remarks helped “more than significantly.” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) added, “I can tell you, it would be very hard to have listened to the president’s presentation and not have been persuaded of the historic importance of what’s being discussed here. It was a powerful speech.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) added, “It was much more than a pep talk. It was a call to arms, a call to destiny.”

On the other hand, there was Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who told reporters, “For those who have made a decision to be supportive, I think he was persuasive.” The implication, obviously, was that Nelson does not consider himself among those who want to be “supportive” of health care reform.

As for what’s next, expect debate today on Stupak language championed by Ben Nelson, while talks continue over the latest in a series of public option compromises.