WASHINGTON (AP) — Praising and prodding Congress, President Barack Obama this week said a vast reform of the nation’s health insurance system is required to head off instability to families, industry and the government itself.

“Deferring reform is nothing more than defending the status quo – and those who would oppose our efforts should take a hard look at just what it is they’re defending,” Obama said on Wednesday in the Rose Garden, pushing for landmark bills to get through the House and Senate before Congress’ August recess.

Putting more of his own political stake behind the effort each day, Obama outlined the troubles with the U.S. approach to health care coverage, with an emphasis on the cost to consumers.  He spoke of soaring premiums, deductibles and out-of-pocket costs and promised with reform, “You’ll save money.”

“If you lose your job, change your job or start a new business, you’ll still be able to find quality health insurance that you can afford,” Obama promised.  Once again assuring Americans who are dubious of what might be changing, he said those happy with their doctor and health care plan will be able to keep it.

To make his point, Obama surrounded himself with nurses and proclaimed that they’re “on board” with reform.

Any proposed health care package still must clear the complexities and politics of getting through the House and Senate, with Obama’s ambitious goals of slowing cost increases and bringing
coverage to nearly 50 million uninsured. How to pay for it all remains one of the most vexing parts of the debate.

The Senate health committee cast a milestone vote Wednesday to approve legislation expanding insurance coverage to nearly all Americans, becoming the first congressional panel to act on Obama’s top domestic priority.

A day earlier, House Democratic leaders pledged to meet the president’s goal of health care legislation before their August break, offering a $1.5 trillion plan that for the first time would make health
care a right and a responsibility for all Americans.  Left to pick up most of the tab were medical providers, employers and the wealthy.

“This progress should make us hopeful, but it can’t make us complacent,” Obama said.  “It should instead provide the urgency for both the House and the Senate to finish their critical work on health reform before the August recess.”

Indeed, Obama’s brief comments amounted to a presidential pep talk.  “It’s time for us to buck up Congress, this administration, the entire federal government to be clear that we’ve got to get this done.”

In the Senate, the health committee’s 13-10 party line vote advanced a $600 billion measure that would require individuals to get health insurance and employers to contribute to the cost.

The health committee bill calls for the government to provide financial assistance with premiums for individuals and families making up to four times the federal poverty level, or about $88,000 for a family of four, a broad cross-section of the middle class. The legislation is but one piece of a broader Senate bill still under development.

“This time we’ve produced legislation that by and large I think the American people want,” said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who stood in for the committee chairman, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. Kennedy, who’s made health care legislation a lifelong priority, is being treated for brain cancer.

But ranking Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming argued that the bill would break Obama’s promises by adding to the deficit.

Obama quickly issued a statement of praise, and then he took to the Rose Garden. It marked the third straight day the president has kept up a full-court press on health care. The drive included a television ad blitz by Obama’s political operation, targeting moderate lawmakers of both parties.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wanted floor debate to begin a week from Monday. With the Senate Finance Committee still struggling to reach consensus, however, that timetable could slip.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., met Wednesday with committee Democrats to try to settle how to pay for the bill and other issues.

“We’re just not quite there,” Baucus said after the meeting. Obama has pushed Baucus to have a bill ready by week’s end, but Baucus declined to say whether he’d made a timetable commitment to the president.

“I’m just pushing as hard as I can,” said Baucus, who’s aiming for a bipartisan deal.  “I’m very sympathetic to the desire to get this … as soon as possible and that’s my goal.”

Obama’s political organization is launching a series of 30-second television ads on health care, which will begin airing Wednesday in Washington and on cable TV nationally. A version will run on local stations in eight states – Arkansas, Indiana, Florida, Louisiana, Maine, North Dakota, Nebraska and Ohio – to prod senators to back the health care effort. They will run for two weeks.

In the ads, private citizens describe problems they’ve had with the medical system and say it’s time for action. The sponsor is Organizing for America, Obama’s campaign organization, which has become part of the national Democratic Party. The group would not reveal the cost.

The Republican National Committee was answering back.

In a fundraising appeal titled “Hillarycare revisited,” the RNC warned about “Obamacare” and said the government “already runs car companies, banks and mortgage companies. Republicans believe that the last thing the American people want is government telling them when and where – or even whether – they can get medical treatment for their families.”

Associated Press reporters David Espo, Ben Feller, Alan Fram and Erica Werner contributed to this report.

Photo: President Barack Obama