WASHINGTON BUREAU — President Obama tried this week to steer debate about health reform back toward debate about health reform.

“We can have a real debate,” Obama said Thursday at a meeting of a Democratic political organization, Organizing for America, Washington. “Health care is hard, and there are some legitimate issues out there that have to be sorted through”

But Obama told attendees at the meeting that the first priority is to cut through “absurd claims” about health insurance reform efforts.

Obama said the results of a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll illustrate the problem.

“It turns out,” Obama said, “that a huge proportion of the American people are convinced, A, that somehow health reform means illegal immigrants are going to get health care; B, that it’s a government takeover of health care; C, that all the money is going to be funding abortions; D, that – what’s the other one? Death panels, that we’re all going to be, you know, pulling the plug on Grandma. Now, come on.”

Obama said later that one of the first thing supporters promoting the administration’s approach to health reform should tell people is “that the status quo is unsustainable.”

“If you like what you have now, unless we make some changes, you’re not going to have exactly what it is that you like,” Obama said. “The reason is because health care costs are going up so fast — as I said, 3 times faster than wages; much faster than inflation in every other area of life — that it’s going to gobble up a higher and higher percentage of your income in terms of premiums and out-of-pocket costs. More and more employers are going to say, we just can’t afford to provide you health insurance, or if we do, we’re going to push more and more costs onto you.”

Earlier, on Thursday, Obama said during a Philadelphia radio talk show that he believes some Republican leaders have been obstructionist for political gain.

“As far as negotiations with Republicans, my attitude has always been, let’s see if we can get this done with some consensus,” Obama said. “I would love to have more Republicans engaged and involved in this process.”

Some Republicans may have decided, “let’s not give them a victory and maybe we can have a replay of 1993-94,” Obama said. “I think there are some folks who are taking a page out of that playbook. But this shouldn’t be a political issue.”

The president cited Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., as examples of Republicans who are working on health reform in a constructive, bipartisan way.

Obama also talked about his views on whether a public health insurance plan option is an essential part of health reform legislation.

Even if a public option were included, it would only be a small, optional, part of health reform legislation, Obama said.

“What we’ve said is, we think that’s a good idea,” Obama said of the public option proposal. “We haven’t said that’s the only aspect.”

Obama also commented on reaction to a suggestion by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that the idea of leaving out a public option was not necessarily a deal-breaker.

The position that Sebelius expressed is not new, Obama said.

“The press got a little excited, and some folks on the left got a little excited,” Obama said. “Our position on this hasn’t changed.”

Obama made his comments as Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee were resuming health legislation talks.

Grassley said the recent, emotional townhall meetings show that the public has rejected the far-reaching proposals Democrats have put on the table, viewing them as overly expensive precursors to “a government takeover of health care.”

Grassley said is hopeful that he and 5 other members of the Senate Finance Committee can draft a better, less costly plan capable of winning broad support from Democrats and Republicans.

But Grassley said he and his colleagues may be forced to reassess the breadth of their efforts in light of public concerns.