Health care battle delays Obama Pacific trip

(AFP file) US President Barack Obama

WASHINGTON (AFP) – The fierce and fateful battle over health care reform forced President Barack Obama to delay his departure on a trip to Indonesia and Australia by three days, to March 21.

Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs made the announcement on his Twitter feed, a day after saying the trip would not be postponed, reflecting the fast-shifting debate on an issue testing the president's political credibility.

Gibbs also said Obama's wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha would no longer join the president on a poignant journey to Indonesia, where he lived as a boy for four years with his mother.

"The president will delay leaving for Indonesia and Australia -- will now leave Sunday -- the first lady and the girls will not be on the trip," Gibbs wrote.

In his daily briefing, Gibbs was repeatedly pressed on whether the president's threatened effort to pass health care reform could further delay the visit to Asia but he refused to budge.

"The president is going on a trip on the 21st," Gibbs said repeatedly.

The trip now figures to be an even faster sprint through Indonesia and Australia than previously scheduled, though the White House says it must go on as both nations are vital to Obama's bid to revive US Asia-Pacific policy.

Obama has billed himself as America's first "Pacific president" and his journey had been timed to coincide with his daughters' school's spring break to allow the president to take his family.

The fact he must leave his wife and daughters at home may take the gloss off the trip for Obama and disappoint his hosts.

Gibbs however said even in Obama's original itinerary, there had never been plans for the president to visit his old school or the house where he lived when he was in Jakarta as a boy between 1967 and 1971.

But making the journey -- with or without his family -- was paramount, the White House stressed.

"The United States has been absent from the Asia Pacific region. We can't lead in this region of the world without strong bilateral relationships with Indonesia and Australia," Gibbs said.

The president is also due to stop in the Pacific island of Guam, an unincorporated US territory, on the way to Asia, to see American troops.

The White House had been pressing the House of Representatives to hold a key vote on Obama's flagship health care reforms before his original departure date of March 18, but it became clear that that deadline was unrealistic.

The delay will also likely fan fresh doubts about the capacity of Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives to put together a majority of votes for the embattled effort to overhaul America's mostly private health care system.

Obama has spent over a year trying to cajole Congress into passing the kind of sweeping health care reform that has eluded Democratic presidents for decades.

In recent days, he has escalated the fight, staking his own political credibility and authority on passing the bid to expand access to health care for millions of Americans and to cut costs and rein in insurance giants.

In a delicate piece of political choreography, Obama wants the House of Representatives to pass a Senate health care bill, then for both chambers to endorse a package of "fixes" to harmonize the final legislation.

Obama, who lived in Jakarta with his late mother Ann Dunham in the 1960s, said last year in Singapore that he was looking forward to visiting his old haunts in Indonesia.

He was invited to make the trip by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and both sides have said they plan to use Obama's childhood ties to the country to further tighten a crucial pan-Pacific relationship.

Obama is hugely popular in Indonesia, but earlier on Friday several dozen Muslim students protested in front of the US embassy in Jakarta against his visit to the world's largest Muslim-majority country.

"Just like Bush, he is a war president and an enemy of Islam," protest coordinator Fikri Ahmad Irhamul told AFP.

Source: AFP

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