Obama Lays Out Proposal to Divided Congress, Country

Obama Lays Out Proposal to Divided Congress, Country

By Kyle Trygstad - September 10, 2009

President Obama stepped into the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday night with the lofty task of selling his ideals for health care reform to a sharply divided legislative body -- liberals intent on a public option being included in health care reform, moderate Democrats skeptical of the cost of reform, and Republicans who are against the very idea of comprehensive reform.

In his second address to Congress, the president -- nursing a 52 percent job approval rating -- reached out to both sides of the aisle, as well as to the American public, whom polling shows is just as split on health care as is Congress. Obama took the 16-block trek down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where even leaders of the Democratic Caucus are not in complete agreement on how to proceed. Meanwhile, Republicans claim they side with the majority of the American people in opposition of the Democrats' reform plans.

"The time for bickering is over," he said to the 535 voting members of Congress. "The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care."

Obama outlined a plan for health care reform in the greatest detail to date and made a concerted effort to lay it out on the table in its simplest form. He also personalized the debate with stories of people becoming more sick or dying because of insurance technicalities. "That is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America," Obama said.

The plan provides "security and stability" to those already with health insurance, provides insurance for the uninsured, and slows "the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government." He maintained that no one will be required to change their coverage or doctor -- something Republicans have routinely claimed to be false.

Perhaps the most important piece of the proposal Obama described includes "a marketplace where individuals and small businesses will be able to shop for health insurance at competitive prices" -- the same way large companies and government employees receive affordable coverage, he said. This coincides with one of the four priorities put forth following the speech by Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), who gave the Republican rebuttal.

Massachusetts, the most well-known of the successful state models for health care reform, has a similar system.

The president played down the necessity of a public option, which has erupted as the central argument both for and against reform. At a background briefing prior to the speech, a senior administration official told reporters Obama would make clear that "the public choice is a means to an end ... not an end in and of itself." Obama did, referring to it simply as "an additional step we can take."

That stance, however, does not sit well with members of the House Progressive Caucus, who have demanded the inclusion of the public option, in some form, for months. In July, the 57 caucus members sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) stating that any health care proposal without a public option is "unacceptable."

Pelosi has taken a similar tack, calling the public option "essential" on Tuesday after a meeting at the White House with Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). However, the second ranking Democrat in the House, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), said Tuesday he would support a health care bill that did not include the government option.

"It is only one part of my plan," Obama said of the public option. "To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make insurance affordable for those without it. ... And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have."

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who has been pushing for a bipartisan deal in his committee for months, said yesterday he is moving forward next week on a bill with or without Republican support. The bill that comes out of Finance, however, will not include a public option, Baucus said.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed a bill in July, and three House committees have also passed health care bills. Having four out of the five necessary committees approve a reform bill is something that "has never happened before," Obama said.

"There is agreement in this chamber on about 80 percent of what needs to be done, putting us closer to the goal of reform than we have ever been," the president said. He also criticized the opposite party for invoking "scare tactics" and using the health care debate "to score short-term political points."

Republicans this week have bristled at Democrats' insinuations that the GOP has offered no concrete alternatives. At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kent.) said Republicans were interested in improving health care, but not in the form of a "massive, comprehensive bill." Joining McConnell at the press event, House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio) said Republicans have put forth ideas, but the imminent goal is stopping the majority's efforts.

"The problem right now is they're in this big rush to pass this bill," Boehner said, "and the American people want us to do everything we can to stop it."

Throughout the speech, many Republicans hissed at parts they did not agree with, while also standing in applause at times. One lasting moment came about half way through the speech, when Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) yelled, "You lie!" after Obama denied the GOP claims that his reform would insure illegal immigrants.

On CNN"s "Larry King Live" following the speech, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the remark "totally disrespectful" and said there is "no place for it in that setting or any other, and he should apologize immediately."

Obama referred to McCain at least three times, as he sought to bridge the partisan divide that has roiled debate. As he described a plan to offer immediate low-cost coverage to those with pre-existing conditions, Obama said, "This was a good idea when Senator John McCain proposed it in the campaign, it's a good idea now, and we should embrace it."

An important group the president hoped to win over tonight were the Blue Dogs, a group of 52 fiscally conservative House Democrats, some of whom have already stated they will not support the current plans for reform in the House. Obama said he "will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits -- either now or in the future." Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), a co-chair of the group, issued a statement following the speech that indicated they remained open to the president's reform efforts.

"Blue Dogs believe we have a responsibility to pass health care reform legislation that is deficit neutral, increases the value and quality of care for all Americans, and that takes a responsible approach to controlling costs over the long term," she said. "The Blue Dogs share the President's commitment to passing health care reform this year, and we look forward to continuing the important work of crafting this critical legislation."

Many Republicans issued statements of disapproval following the speech. "The president has proven his ability again to speak very well and say very little," said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. "He continued to try and sell his government-run health care experiment even though it will increase costs, increase taxes and increase the deficit."

Democrats and Republicans are already scheduled to continue dissecting the speech on the airwaves and in press conferences today, as they get back to work on health care. As for Obama, he isn't waiting to see how his calls for action and bipartisanship go over in Congress.

The president will now hit the road in a continued effort to sell reform to the American public. Following his nationally televised address last night and a speech on Monday at an AFL-CIO event in Cincinnati, Obama is holding a health care reform rally Saturday in a Minneapolis sports arena.


Kyle Trygstad is a Washington correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Email him at: Follow him on Twitter @KyleTrygstad.

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