President Barack Obama arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday, July 31, 2013, to meet with the House Democratic Caucus. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama sought Wednesday to reassure Democrats nervous about the impact of his health care law and the prospects for immigration legislation, telling them "You're on the right side of history."
In the first of two closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill, Obama focused on financial gains as the economy emerges from the worst downturn since the Depression. He was warned about nominating former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers as chairman of the Federal Reserve and faced questions about his health care law. Some lawmakers complained that three years after its passage, the law still baffles many Americans.
Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., told the president that tapping Summers to replace current Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke would be a mistake.
Obama defended Summers, saying he had been treated unfairly by the news media. The president insisted that he had not made a decision on his choice. Summers, a former Obama economic adviser, and Janet Yellen, the Fed's current vice chair, are among the leading candidates for the job.
The first major rewrite of immigration laws in a generation and legislation to keep the government running without interruption are paramount issues for Democrats. So is the president's contentious health care law, with uninsured people able to start shopping for a health plan on Oct. 1.
Provisions of the law that still confuse many Americans kick in on Jan. 1 although the administration announced earlier this month that it would delay a key requirement that employers with 50 or more workers offer affordable coverage, or face fines.
Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., expressed concern about the health care law, mentioning that in her state there was not enough competition because only one company had entered into the health care exchange. Obama told Democrats that it was a problem in several states, but the administration was working to address the problem.
"He was reminding us as we all go back to our districts in August that we are on the right side of these issues and the right side of history in terms of providing health care to Americans and to ultimately finding comprehensive immigration reform is the right thing for the country to do at this time," said Shea-Porter.
"It was a real send-off to us, I think, as we went back to our districts that we are on the right side of history."
Said Rep. John Yarmouth, D-Ky.: "I just think he was trying to bolster the courage of the group."
Leaving the meeting, Obama said his message was about "jobs, middle class, growth."
"It's really about a focus on growing the middle class in this county after a trend of not just recession but really a couple decades of really all of Americans working really hard and not making economic progress for themselves or their kids ... Whatever we do that has to be obviously at the top of our minds," Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., told reporters.
House Democrats presented the president with a birthday cake; Obama turns 52 on Sunday. Later in the morning, the president huddled behind closed doors with Senate Democrats.
The sessions come just days before lawmakers leave the capital for a six-week recess and the prospect of facing constituents back home at town halls at a time when polls show Congress being held in low regard.
Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., said Democrats asked the president for his assistance in next year's midterm elections, traditionally a rough ride for the party controlling the White House.
As Obama presses his economic agenda across the country, he's playing one chamber against the other in Congress, hoping Americans will hear his calls for compromise and conclude it's not his fault that little is getting done in Washington.
Call it a congressional two-step: Praise Senate Republicans for modest displays of cooperation, then contrast them with House Republicans, whom Obama has started describing as stubborn saboteurs. It's a theme Obama has used repeatedly to bolster his argument that he's the one acting reasonably as he prepares for clashes this fall with Congress, whose relations with Obama have always been notoriously strained.
"A growing number of Republican senators are trying to get things done," Obama said Tuesday as he unveiled a new fiscal proposal in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Days earlier, Obama accused the House GOP of risking another financial crisis by issuing ultimatums over the debt ceiling and government funding.
"We've seen a group of Republicans in the House, in particular, who suggest they wouldn't vote to pay the very bills that Congress has already racked up," Obama said. "That's not an economic plan. That's just being a deadbeat."
Obama has reason to be cautiously optimistic about the Senate, which passed a far-reaching immigration overhaul Obama sorely sought with bipartisan support and struck a deal over Obama's nominees that has led to a flurry of confirmations after months of logjam. A number of prominent GOP senators have also criticized a Republican plan to threaten a government shutdown unless funding is cut off for Obama's health care law.
But even in the Senate, there's skepticism about Obama's intentions. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said Obama's contrasting tone about the House and Senate amounts to a divide-and-conquer strategy that calls into question the White House's outreach.
"These discussions have been going on for five years and no agreements have been reached yet," Sessions said. "It could be the president is playing the Senate like a fiddle."
On most issues — including pressing tax and spending matters — Senate and House Republicans are unified in their opposition. There was no telling Republicans apart Tuesday, for instance, as they panned a corporate tax cut and jobs spending package the White House had portrayed as a concession to Republicans — who oppose using tax revenue to support more spending.
Associated Press writers Erica Werner and Henry C. Jackson contributed to this report.