Obama challenges Congress on health care reforms

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Feeling reassured?: Terminally ill Jackie Beattie (83) watches Barack Obama’s speech on health care in Washington on Wednesday.
Feeling reassured?: Terminally ill Jackie Beattie (83) watches Barack Obama’s speech on health care in Washington on Wednesday.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jeff Zeleny

To work with Republicans on costs and coverage

Price tag less than that spent on Iraq, Afghan wars

Initiative to curbing medical malpractice lawsuits

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama confronted a critical Congress and a sceptical nation on Wednesday, decrying the “scare tactics” of his opponents and presenting his most forceful case yet for a sweeping health care overhaul that has eluded Washington for generations.

In blunt language before a rare joint session of Congress, Mr. Obama vowed that he would “not waste time” with those who have made a political calculation to oppose him, but left the door open to working with Republicans to cut health costs and expand coverage to millions.

“The time for bickering is over,” he said. “The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action.”

The President was greeted by booming applause from Democrats and polite handshakes from Republicans. But the political challenge at hand soon became clear as several Republican lawmakers heckled Mr. Obama when he dismissed the notion that so-called death panels would deny care to the elderly.

“It is a lie, plain and simple,” Mr. Obama declared.

After Mr. Obama said it was not true that the Democrats were proposing to provide health coverage to illegal immigrants, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina yelled “You lie!”

The 47-minute speech was an effort to regain political footing on health care, his highest priority. He insisted he had not closed the door on reaching a bipartisan compromise. He gave a nod to John McCain, Republican, and embraced his proposal to create a high-risk pool to help cover people with pre-existing conditions against catastrophic expenses.

Moral issue

And, with the wife of Senator Edward M. Kennedy sitting in the House gallery, the President appealed to the nation’s conscience, reading a letter Kennedy had written in May with instructions that it be delivered to the President upon his death. In it, Kennedy wrote that health care was “above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.” He also said: “I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”

The speech came after a rocky August for the White House, in which many lawmakers held public meetings that deteriorated into shouting matches over health care.

After months of insisting he would leave the specifics to lawmakers, Mr. Obama used the speech to present his most detailed outline yet of a plan he said would provide “security and stability” to those who have insurance and cover those who do not, all without adding to the federal deficit.

The President placed a price tag on the plan of about $900 billion over 10 years, which he said was “less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” But he devoted much of his address to making the case for why such a plan is necessary, and sought to reassure the elderly and the Americans who already have insurance that they would not be worse off.

Mr. Obama repeated his support for a government insurance plan to compete with the private sector.

He sketched out a vision for a plan in which it would be illegal for insurers to drop sick people or deny them coverage for pre-existing conditions, and in which every American would be required to carry health coverage, just as drivers must carry auto insurance.

Mr. Obama did embrace some fresh proposals. He announced an initiative to create pilot projects aimed at curbing medical malpractice lawsuits, a cause important to physicians and Republicans.

He endorsed a plan, contained in a draft proposal being circulated by Senator Max Baucus, Democrat and Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, to help pay for expanding coverage by taxing insurance companies that offer expensive, so-called gold-plated insurance plans.

And, seeking to reassure those who worry he will run up deficit, Mr. Obama promised to include a provision that “requires us to come forward with more spending cuts” if the savings he envisions do not materialise.

In embracing Mr. McCain and the malpractice projects, the White House appeared to be seeking to lay the groundwork for an argument that the final bill would be bipartisan not because it garners Republican votes but because it contains Republican ideas. That is the same argument Mr. Obama used when the economic recovery package passed with just three Republican votes.

Primed for fight

Republicans seemed primed for a fight; many, like Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican, who has been deeply involved in health negotiations, released statements about the speech even before it began. Mr. Grassley called on Mr. Obama to “start building the kind of legislation that could win the support of 70 to 80 Senators” — a goal he said could not be achieved if the bill contained a new government plan.

In the Republican response, Charles Boustany Jr., a heart surgeon, agreed that the health care system needed an overhaul. But he urged the President to start anew, focusing on a “common-sense, bipartisan plan.”

An hour after the speech, Representative Wilson, the heckler, issued an apology for his outburst.

The speech was the President’s second address before a joint session of Congress. But the political backdrop on Wednesday was far different from his appearance in the House chamber on the 36th day of his term, when an optimistic wave of momentum was at his back and his Republican rivals were dispirited and in disarray. “What we have also seen in these last months is the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government. Instead of honest debate, we have seen scare tactics,” Mr. Obama said. “Some have dug into unyielding ideological camps that offer no hope of compromise. Too many have used this as an opportunity to score short-term political points, even if it robs the country of our opportunity to solve a long-term challenge.”

He added, “And out of this blizzard of charges and counter-charges, confusion has reigned.” While Mr. Obama was addressing lawmakers inside the ornate House chamber, the much more important audience was outside Washington: the 180 million Americans who already have health insurance and who remain sceptical that Mr. Obama’s plan will change things for the better. Inside the chamber, the President drew laughter when he said, “There remain some significant details to be ironed out.”

— © 2009 The New York Times News Service

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