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Obama "Cautiously Optimistic" About Health Reform

(CBS)
Updated at 4 p.m. ET with more information.

After a private meeting with the entire Senate Democratic caucus today, President Obama said he is "cautiously optimistic" the Senate will pass its health care bill.

"If the Senate knows what's in this bill, then this is going to pass because it's what's right for America," Mr. Obama said.

All of the Senate's Democrats were called to the White House to meet with Mr. Obama today after it became clear over the weekend that their latest efforts at moving health care reform forward were once again stalled. Mr. Obama said Congress must not let differences over certain elements of the bill defeat the entire effort.

"Let's be clear. The final bill won't include everything that everybody wants," he said. "We simply cannot allow differences… to prevent us from meeting our responsibility to solve a longstanding and urgent problem for the American people."

As recently as last week, the Senate appeared on the verge of passing its health care bill, after a group of key liberal and conservative Democrats worked out a plan to break the Senate stalemate over the public option. Instead of including a government-run insurance plan (or "public option") in the bill, they proposed allowing people ages 55 to 64 to buy into Medicare.

However, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) -- one of the Democratic caucus members the plan was intended to appease -- dropped a bombshell Sunday on CBS News' "Face the Nation," when he said he would not vote for a bill that expands Medicare.

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In spite of the ongoing debate, Mr. Obama said today the bill meets the criteria for reform he laid out at the beginning of the year: It is deficit-neutral, it slows down rising health care costs and expands coverage to tens of millions of people, he said.

"These are big changes," he said. "They will save money.. and they're going to save lives....That's why this reform has to pass on our watch."

After making comprehensive health care reform central to his domestic agenda, the president's prestige is on the line, CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller writes.

Mr. Obama said today he does not intend to let people down.

"There's too much at stake for families who can't pay their medical bills," he said. "The stakes are enormous for businesses who are already seeing their premiums go up 15, 20, 30 percent."

Not a Roll Call Vote

Mr. Obama said that today's meeting was "not a roll call" of votes but instead a "broad based discussion on how we move forward." He said the Senate was on the "precipice" of passing its reform bill and has agreed to reforms that will regulate the health insurance market and cut the costs of health care.

The president said the health care bill will be "the largest deficit-reduction plan in over a decade," and that "every health care economist out there" says that "whatever ideas exist in terms of bending the cost curve… those elements are in this bill."

Senate Democrats, however, are still divided over measures like a drug importation amendment that would save the government and consumers money. The public option, which has virtually no chance of appearing in the final Senate bill now, was also estimated to save money by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The Senate can only afford to spend so much more time on health care before moving onto other important agenda items and focusing on re-election campaigns. With the year quickly drawing to a close, Democrats appeared poised to accept Lieberman's terms.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the Senate's strongest public option proponents, said today on CBSNews.com's Washington Unplugged that he is "very disappointed" in Lieberman's position but that the Senate needs "to get to 60 votes."

The House of Representatives -- which included a public option in its own health care bill -- may also be ready to accept> a bill on Lieberman's terms, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said today. The House and the Senate will have to merge their two bills after the Senate passes its bill.

"There are still disagreements that have to be ironed out," Mr. Obama said today. "There is still work to be done in the next few days."