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Activists picket at health insurance conference

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Rally for health care reform
  • Hundreds march through Washington before gathering outside hotel
  • Health insurance lobbying group holding annual conference inside
  • Obama called for final vote on reform legislation within weeks

Washington (CNN) -- Activists ratcheted up the pressure for health care reform Tuesday, picketing in front of a hotel where a group of insurance industry leaders were meeting.

More than 1,000 protesters -- including representatives of organized labor -- marched through the streets of downtown Washington before parking themselves in front of the Ritz Carlton, site of the annual conference of America's Health Insurance Plans, an insurance industry lobbying group.

"We're fired up [and] can't take no more," the marchers chanted as they unfurled an oversized roll of yellow police tape emblazoned with the words "corporate crime scene."

They were led by, among others, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a prominent backer of reform legislation.

The protest came one day after President Obama tore into health insurance companies for recent rate increases.

The administration "will continue to make a forceful case" for reform, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Tuesday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has asked to address the insurance conference this week, Gibbs noted. The secretary would probably also discuss the issue of recent rate increases, he added.

The increasingly heated populist rhetoric, according to many analysts, is part of a strategy to pressure wavering Democrats to back the president's sweeping reform plan.

Obama has called for a final up or down vote in Congress within the next few weeks. No Republicans are expected to vote for the nearly $1 trillion package.

"The Republicans are ... proving themselves the party of 'no,' " declared Dean, a former Democratic presidential candidate.

A handful of protesters were arrested.

Gibbs said last week that he expects the House to approve the Senate bill by March 18. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, however, pushed back against the idea of that deadline, saying, "none of us has mentioned the 18th other than Mr Gibbs."

"We are trying to do this as soon as possible," Hoyer said. "That continues to be our objective."

After the House acts, according to Democratic sources, a separate package of changes designed in part to make the overall measure more palatable to House liberals would then be approved by both chambers, getting through the Senate under a controversial legislative maneuver known as reconciliation. Bills passed under reconciliation require only a bare Senate majority of 51 votes.

Democrats lost their filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate supermajority with the election of Sen. Scott Brown, R-Massachusetts, in January.

Only 25 percent of Americans believe that Congress should pass the health care bill Democratic leaders have been working on for the past year, according to a February 12-15 CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll. But the survey also noted that Americans overwhelmingly approve of many of the bill's specific provisions.

Obama dismissed concerns Monday over any political fallout tied to the health care issue.

"The issue here is not the politics of it," he said.

He and Congress were sent to Washington to "solve the big challenges."

CNN's Paul Courson, Deirdre Walsh and Alan Silverleib contributed to this report.