WASHINGTON - Shaking off a summer of setbacks, President Barack
Obama summoned Congress to enact sweeping health care legislation
Wednesday night, declaring the "time for bickering is over" and the
moment has arrived to protect millions who have unreliable
insurance or no coverage at all.
Obama said the changes he has in mind would cost about $900
billion over decade, "less than we have spent on the Iraq and
Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few
Americans" passed during the Bush administration.
In a televised speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama
spoke in favor of an option for the federal government to sell
insurance in competition with private industry. But he said he was
open to alternatives that create choices for consumers - a
declaration sure to displease its liberal supporters.
Obama's speech came as the president and his allies in Congress
readied an autumn campaign to enact his top domestic priority.
While Democrats command strong majorities in both the House and
Senate, neither chamber has acted on Obama's top domestic priority,
missing numerous deadlines leaders had set for themselves.
In a fresh sign of urgency, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced
that his Senate Finance Committee would meet in two weeks to begin
drafting legislation, whether or not a handful of Democrats and
Republicans have come to an agreement. The panel is the last of
five to act in Congress, and while the outcome is uncertain, it is
the only one where bipartisanship has been given a chance to
Obama said there is widespread agreement on about 80 percent of
what must be included in legislation. Any yet, criticizing
Republicans without saying so, he added: "Instead of honest debate,
we have seen scare tactics" and ideological warfare that offers no
hope for compromise.
"Well, the time for bickering is over," he said. "The time for
games has passed. Now is the season for action."
"I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am
determined to be the last," he added.
The president was alternately bipartisan and tough on his
Republican critics. He singled out Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for
praise at one point. Yet, moments later he accused Republicans of
spreading the "cynical and irresponsible" charge that the
legislation would include "death panels" with the power to hasten
the death of senior citizens.
In one gesture to Republicans, Obama said his administration
would authorize a series of test programs in some states to check
the impact of medical malpractice changes on health insurance
In a reflection of the stakes, White House aides mustered all
the traditional pomp they could for a president who took office
vowing to change Washington. The setting was a State of the
Union-like joint session of Congress, attended by lawmakers,
members of the Cabinet and diplomats.
The House was packed, and loud applause greeted the president
when he walked down the center aisle of the House chamber.
Additionally, the White House invited as guests men and women
who have suffered from high costs and insurance practices, seating
them near first lady Michelle Obama. Vicki Kennedy, the widow of
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., was also on the guest list.
Kennedy, who died last month, had made health care a career-long
Obama intends to follow up the speech with an appearance
Saturday in Minneapolis, the White House announced.
Despite deep-seated differences among lawmakers, Obama drew a
standing ovation when he recounted stories of Americans whose
coverage was denied or delayed by their insurers with catastrophic
"That is heartbreaking, it is wrong, and no one should me
treated that way in the United States of America."
The president sought to cast his own plan as being in the
comfortable political middle, rejecting both the government-run
system that some liberals favor and the Republican-backed approach
under which all consumers buy health insurance on their own.
Obama said the legislation he seeks would guarantee insurance to
consumers, regardless of pre-existing medical conditions, as well
as other protections. "As soon as I sign this bill, it will be
against the law for insurance companies to drop your coverage when
you get sick or water it down when you need it most," he added.
The president assured those with insurance that "nothing in this
plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or
the doctor you have."
Obama also said the legislation he seeks would help those who
lack insurance to afford it. "These are not primarily people on
welfare," he said in a line that appeared aimed at easing concerns
among working-class voters. "These are middle-class Americans."
The president also said he wants legislation that "will slow the
growth of health care costs for our families."
Obama said a collective failure to meet the challenge of
overhauling health care for decades has "led us to a breaking
Responding on behalf of Republicans, Rep. Charles Boustany,
R-La., said in excerpts released in advance that the country wants
Obama to instruct Democratic congressional leaders that "it's time
to start over on a common-sense, bipartisan plan focused on
lowering the cost of health care while improving quality."
"Replacing your family's current health care with government-run
health care is not the answer," said Boustany, a former cardiac
The so-called government option that Obama mentioned has emerged
as one of the most contentious issues in the monthslong debate over
health care, with liberal Democrats supporting it and many
moderates inside the party opposed. An early draft of Baucus' plan
calls for an alternative consisting of nonprofit co-ops. Sen.
Olympia Snowe of Maine, the Republican who seems most inclined to
cross party lines on the issue, favors a different approach,
consisting of a standby in which the government could sell
insurance if competition fails to emerge in individual states.
The speech took place after weeks of halting progress and highly
publicized setbacks for Obama and his allies on the issue of health
care. After internal divisions prevented House Democrats from
passing legislation in July, numerous members of the rank and file
were confronted in town-hall style meetings with highly vocal
There were charges - launched by former Republican vice
presidential candidate Sarah Palin and debunked by nonpartisan
organizations - that the legislation included "death panels" whose
purpose was to facilitate the end of life for the elderly under
At the same time, polling has shown a deterioration in support
for the president, and an AP-GfK poll hours before the speech
showed public disapproval of Obama's handling of health care has
jumped to 52 percent, an increase of 9 percentage points since
Democrats had yet another change to factor into their plans.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's death this summer robbed them not only of
the experience of one of the Senate's most accomplished
legislators, but also of their 60th vote in the Senate. That meant
they needed at least one Republican vote to choke off any
filibuster. Alternatively, they could try a more partisan approach,
drafting a bill that could not be filibustered, but also shorn of
some of the provisions they want.
Republicans greeted Obama's appearance politely but coolly.
"When it comes to health care, Americans don't want government
to tear down the house we have," said Senate GOP leader Mitch
McConnell of Kentucky.
"They want it to repair the one we've got. That means sensible,
step-by-step reforms, not more trillion-dollar grand schemes."
Obama has said repeatedly that agreement exists on about 80
percent of the issues involved in drafting legislation, and the
White House and Baucus have lined up numerous outside interests to
help shepherd a bill to passage.
The nation's drugmakers and hospitals have already made deals to
help pay a cost of the legislation. The American Medical
Association also is in support, in large measure because the bills
would avert planned reductions of 20 percent in their Medicare
AARP, which advocates for those aged 50 and over, supports the
approach Obama and his congressional allies have taken.
On the other hand, the nation's health insurance providers have
yet to come to terms with the White House. In recent weeks, Obama
has used them as a target, accusing them of putting profits over
patient coverage by denying coverage and other steps.