WASHINGTON (CNN) - As a health care reform bill sponsored by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus got a cool reception from Republicans and some Democrats on Capitol Hill Wednesday, President Obama quietly held a White House meeting with two Senate sponsors of a rival health care proposal.
The meeting late Wednesday afternoon with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and GOP Sen. Bob Bennett was not on the President's public schedule, but senior administration officials confirmed it took place and characterized it as being part of Obama's ongoing effort to reach out to lawmakers in both parties. Wyden and Bennett have long pushed a bipartisan reform bill that would create state-run insurance exchanges through which consumers could select various plans, including their existing employer-sponsored plan.
Republicans officials privately contend the meeting, which came on the same day Baucus rolled out his plan, suggests the president is looking for alternative legislative vehicles that could attract GOP support as the clock continues to tick on the reform effort.
But senior administration officials sharply disputed that characterization, saying Wyden has been trying to get an audience for the legislation for some time, and the president has always intended to meet with the lawmakers. The officials said the timing of the meeting was coincidental to the Baucus unveiling, and that the president simply wants to continue reaching out to lawmakers in both parties who are serious about reform.
The Wyden-Bennett meeting came right after Obama held a 30-minute one-on-one meeting with Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who on Tuesday was sharply critical of the emerging Baucus proposal.
Senior administration officials say the president had planned to bring Rockefeller in for a meeting before the senator made his critical comments, and that there was no tension. The senator emerged from the White House meeting telling reporters that he was still hopeful for a bipartisan compromise.
When asked to describe the president's privately-relayed position, Rockefeller said Obama is "philosophical - and like I - optimistic" a a health care reform deal can still be reached.
Rockefeller said the rhetoric flying around Washington is merely political posturing, and both sides will eventually zero in on crafiting a deal. "As you get to actual casting of votes, people get a lot more serious," he said.