Obama admits health care overhaul may die on Hill
No, maybe he can’t. President Barack Obama, who insisted he would succeed where other presidents had failed to fix the nation’s health care system, now concedes the effort may die in Congress.
The president’s newly conflicting signals could frustrate Democratic lawmakers who are hungry for guidance from the White House as they try to salvage the effort to extend coverage to millions of uninsured Americans and hold down spiraling medical costs. Obama’s comments Thursday night came hours after Republican Scott Brown was sworn in to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy, leaving Democrats without their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and Obama’s signature health legislation with no clear path forward.
“I think it’s very important for us to have a methodical, open process over the next several weeks, and then let’s go ahead and make a decision,” Obama said at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser.
“And it may be that … if Congress decides we’re not going to do it, even after all the facts are laid out, all the options are clear, then the American people can make a judgment as to whether this Congress has done the right thing for them or not,” the president said. “And that’s how democracy works. There will be elections coming up, and they’ll be able to make a determination and register their concerns.”
It was a shift in tone for the issue the “Yes we can” candidate campaigned on and made the centerpiece of his domestic agenda last year. In a speech to a joint session of Congress in September, Obama declared: “I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last. … Here and now we will meet history’s test.”
Sweeping health legislation to extend medical coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans passed the House and Senate last year and was on the verge of completion — though there were still disagreements between the two houses — before Brown’s upset victory last month in a special election in Massachusetts. Since then it has been in limbo, and Obama has not publicly offered specifics to help lawmakers move forward. Congressional aides felt his remarks Thursday did not clarify matters.
“The next step is what I announced at the State of the Union, which is to call on our Republican friends to present their ideas. What I’d like to do is have a meeting whereby I’m sitting with the Republicans, sitting with the Democrats, sitting with health care experts, and let’s just go through these bills. … And then I think that we’ve got to go ahead and move forward on a vote,” Obama said Thursday shortly after a White House meeting with Democratic congressional leaders that produced no apparent progress on health care.
“I think we should be very deliberate, take our time. We’re going to be moving a jobs package forward over the next several weeks; that’s the thing that’s most urgent right now in the minds of Americans all across the country.”
“Here’s the key, is to not let the moment slip away,” Obama also said.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters Friday that there was no meeting set for the president to talk over health care strategy with Republican and Democratic lawmakers. The GOP has shown more interest in opposing Democrats on the issue than in working with them.
Bipartisan congressional leaders are planning to join Obama at the White House on Tuesday, but Gibbs reiterated that the meeting will be centered on how to create jobs and boost the economy. Gibbs said White House officials are “still working with Capitol Hill on the best way forward” on health care.
Rank-and-file Democrats are eager for their leaders to settle on a strategy by the end of next week, after which lawmakers will return to their states for a weeklong recess during which they’re sure to face questions from constituents. The health legislation has become unpopular with voters and a political drag in a midterm election year.
Don Stewart, spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Friday that the White House has not requested a sit-down on health care with Republicans.
“The president wants to start over on health care? Sen. McConnell’s been saying that for months,” said Stewart.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought momentum in a speech Friday to Democratic Party activists meeting in Washington. “Standing together and working together, we will pass health care reform for the American people,” said Pelosi, D-Calif.
“But recognize your role in this. We can do all the inside maneuvering and legislating and the rest, but without the outside mobilization, without your participation, nothing really great or good can happen.”
Ralph Neas of the liberal National Coalition on Health Care issued a stern warning to the White House after learning of Obama’s remarks.
“The time has come for more forceful presidential leadership,” Neas said. Obama must explain more clearly how his health care provisions would help average Americans and must give clearer guidance to Congress, he said.
A number of Democratic lawmakers and liberal groups believe the only way to enact a worthwhile health care package is to have House Democrats hold their noses and vote for a bill the Senate passed on Christmas Eve with no GOP help. It has many provisions that House members don’t like, such as a tax on high-cost health insurance plans, and they would insist that senators also pass legislation to change some of them using a controversial procedure not subject to Republican filibusters.
Some party activists saw Obama’s remarks as a signal that he’s pulling back from that idea. Others said he may simply be making a last overture to Republicans before using the muscular partisan strategy in the Senate.
Anne Kim, of the centrist group Third Way, saw the remarks as an acknowledgment that the White House and congressional Democrats must cool down the health care debate and regain public trust about the process being used.
“They have a better shot of passing health care reform eventually by taking it off the front burner,” said Kim.