Obama postpones Asia trip


White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday the president is disappointed and regrets having to delay his visits to Indonesia and Australia but has told the leaders of those nations that health care is a crucial priority.

"The president believes right now the place for him to be is in Washington seeing this through," Gibbs said.

Obama had already delayed the trip to Indonesia and Australia, pushing back a Thursday departure until Sunday so he could help Democrats on Capitol Hill rally last-minute votes for the plan.

Gibbs said that while White House staff had tried to find a way to push the trip back another few days, the president decided Thursday morning that the best course of action was to reschedule both stops until June.

"We didn't have that kind of padding left," Gibbs said. House Democrats believe they are on track to vote Sunday on a $940 billion health care bill that will expand coverage to millions. If the bill passes, the Senate will begin considering changes to the bill next week.

Democratic lawmakers in both houses of Congress welcomed the president's decision to stay in town.

Said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., "He wants to be here for the history."

"He may have to twist some arms," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont. "He may have to talk to some people. His personal presence helps."

The president's trip had originally been scheduled to coincide with his daughters' spring break from school. After the first delay, the White House announced that the president's family would no longer accompany him overseas, and the president's trip would be cut down by a day as aides sought to tamp down criticism that he was taking a family vacation as the health care debate reached its crucial final stages.

The trip to Indonesia was to be a homecoming of sorts for the president, who spent four years in the world's largest Muslim country as a boy when his mother married an Indonesian man. A statue of Obama as a 10-year-old boy has been erected at the elementary school he attended.

Obama also had been scheduled to deliver his first address to the Muslim world since his historic speech in Cairo last year, and meet with Indonesian President Susilio Bambang Yudhuyono.

Obama was to address Australia's parliament and meet with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, with whom he shares a close relationship on the issues of climate change and the war in Afghanistan.

Other U.S. officials have dropped plans to visit Australia and Indonesia this year. Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled visits to both Australia and Indonesia in January, so that he could remain in Washington for coordination of the U.S. military response to the earthquake in Haiti. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton canceled a trip to Australia at the same time, also because of the earthquake.

Gates and Clinton had planned to attend an annual summit with their Australian counterparts that is a diplomatic priority for Australia, a close ally and a steadfast troop contributor to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time of the cancellations, Gates and Clinton said the Australia summit would be rescheduled.

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