Henderson, Nev. (AP) - Days before hosting an intensive health care summit with both Republicans and Democrats, President Barack Obama made a fervent push for his overhaul, calling it critical not just for the millions without insurance but for the entire country's economic well-being.
"It is vital for our economy to change how health care works in this country," Obama said Friday at a town hall meeting in a high school gym. "Don't let the American people go another year, another 10 years, another 20 years without health insurance reform in this country."
The president's plea for his top domestic priority, which faces an uncertain fate after nearly a year of work in Congress, earned him huge applause. He said the drawn-out effort has cost him politically, and also has undercut the standing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Obama was in Nevada to help the Senate leader survive a tough re-election fight this year - a race that could have a big impact on the balance of power in Washington and the fate of Obama's own proposals on health care and beyond. Obama needs to protect every vote he can in the Senate if his own agenda is to succeed.
"Health care has been knocking me around pretty good," Obama said. "It's been knocking Harry around pretty good."
But the president suggested that was due more to misinformation about the plans than to general unpopularity of the overhaul, and he defended the Democratic bills that have passed both houses of Congress, but have not been reconciled into one piece of legislation.
The president's bipartisan summit is being held Thursday. He dared Republicans to present a proposal addressing the uninsured and rising medical costs, rather than merely saying no to Democratic approaches.
But the summit approaches with hardly a feeling of cooperation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Obama and the Democrats are offering "a partisan bill devoid of support from the American people."
Reid's Washington office said the senator will support allowing the government to sell health insurance in competition with private insurers if the White House and Democratic leaders decide to push a health bill with no GOP backing.
Many conservatives and some moderates oppose the so-called public option. It's in the bill the House passed last year, but not the Senate version. Some congressional Democrats say they doubt the White House will include a public option in the proposal it will unveil Monday.
The Nevada appearance was billed as focusing on the economy but turned into an extended campaign plug for Reid, seen as one of nation's most vulnerable incumbents in the November elections. Reid introduced Obama and then sat behind him, basking in each applause line.
Obama wrapped his arms around Reid at the start of the event and embraced his work throughout. The president rarely missed a chance - on the economic stimulus plan, on health care, on the effort to regulate big banks - to put himself and Reid in the same sentence.
The goal was to shift the emphasis from the unpopularity of some of Reid's votes to, in Obama's view, the courage it took to take expensive steps to save the economy. "Sometimes he takes his licks," Obama said of Reid. "But he gets back up. Harry Reid has never stopped fighting."
The Republican Party wasn't impressed. "Harry Reid has been nothing but a fierce partisan in Washington and a quick visit from President Obama won't save him this November," said Jahan Wilcox, spokesman for the Republican National Committee in Washington.
The seven questions Obama took focused heavily on health care and the economy, giving the president an opportunity to dig into his standard talking points on those topics and to link the two issues.
Outside the school, about three dozen protesters waved signs. They showed dissatisfaction over a variety of issues, including the economy, health care and illegal immigration. "Dump Reid and Obama," said one sign.
Carla Montemayor, 61, from Henderson said she voted for Obama in 2008 but probably would not do so again. "I feel that he wasted time wooing the Republicans, trying to woo them over," she said. "He forgot about the jobs."
The president's appearance served many missions.
- He announced a $1.5 billion boost in public money to help people struggling to afford their mortgages to keep their homes, targeting the five states, led by Nevada, that have been hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis. "Government alone can't solve this problem," Obama said. "But government can make a difference." It was the latest move by a White House determined to show it is helping families rebound from a deep recession that is taking an election-year toll on Obama and his party. The money for the new rescue effort will come from the $700 billion financial industry bailout program.
- Also helping Reid, Obama tried to soothe hard feelings in Las Vegas, where leaders say the president has singled out Sin City as a symbol of irresponsible spending, particularly when he said people shouldn't gamble in Vegas with their college funds. He capped his Las Vegas trip with a speech to the city's Chamber of Commerce, where he delivered an apology - of sorts.
"Let me set the record straight, I love Vegas - always have," he said.
"It wasn't meant to be a shot," Obama said of his college savings remark. "I think everybody would agree that the only place people should spend their college savings is in college. ... But I understand how hard things have been here."
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Charles Babington in Washington and Adrian Sainz and Oskar Garcia in Nevada contributed to this report.
Obama challenges GOP on health care, boosts Reid