WASHINGTON (CNN) – Several senior Democratic advisers to the White House are urging President Obama to further step up his personal involvement in the health care debate, as administration allies privately warn that the president's push for a major reform bill is hitting major roadblocks at a critical juncture on Capitol Hill.
One of the Democratic advisers told CNN there is fear within the party that the president's signature issue is "on the rocks" because of dramatically high cost estimates for separate bills being drafted by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) and Max Baucus (D-Montana). The Congressional Budget Office's estimate for the Kennedy bill - that it will cost $1 trillion and yet leave millions of Americans without health insurance - has given Republicans strong political ammunition to charge reform may be too expensive at a time of massive federal deficits.
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"We're going to need the White House to step it up a little bit and get more engaged," said a second Democratic adviser, who acknowledged concerns that Republicans are gaining steam in the message battle. "We've got some time to sort this out, but decision time is just around the corner."
This second Democratic adviser said the CBO's $1.6 trillion estimate for the Baucus bill was particularly jarring to Democrats because it was "several hundred billion dollars more" than expected. Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, announced this week he's pushing back the official unveiling of his legislation until after July 4 - a delay that imperils White House hopes the Senate can finish work on the issue before leaving town for its August recess.
But senior White House officials contend that while there are legitimate concerns about the status of the legislation, the President is still confident the setbacks are a normal part of the legislative process and it will eventually get back on track.
"We're not hysterical," said one senior White House official. "We've seen this movie before: [the congressional process] looks like a total mess, nothing is getting done, and then something happens."
Amid the Democratic concerns about the need for the President to take on a more active role, the President is planning next Wednesday to appear in a primetime special broadcast on ABC News. The program entitled, "Questions for the President: Prescription for America" will be moderated by Charles Gibson and Diane Sawyer and will feature questions from audience members in the East Room of the White House.
Jim Manley, a senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), told CNN that even though there are some ominous signs for Democrats right now, party officials are confident they're just bumps in the road.
"Be very careful to sort out the wheat from the chaff, the noise from the reality," said Manley. "It's not easy, but we can do it."
But in a sign Democrats may be nervous that they will not be able to reach 60 votes in the Senate for Obama's plan, Reid reminded reporters this week that in order to pass the health legislation he still reserves the right to use arcane budget rules known as "reconciliation" that require only a simple majority of 51 votes to pass legislation.