WASHINGTON (AP) - 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 wants 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 a provision for the federal government to sell
insurance in competition with private industry. But in a remark
certain to displease liberals, he did not insist on it, and said he
was open to other alternatives that create choices for consumers.
Obama said he remains ready to listen to all ideas but added in
a clear reference to Republicans, "I will not waste time with
those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to
kill this plan than to improve it."
In an unusual outburst from the Republican side of the House
chamber, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouted out "You lie" when the
president said illegal immigrants would not benefit from his
proposals. The president paused briefly and smiled, but from her
seat in the visitor's gallery, first lady Michelle Obama shook her
head from side to side in disapproval of the interruption.
In general, the president shied away from providing lawmakers
with a list of particulars he wants to see included in the
legislation, and there was nothing in the speech to invite
comparisons with Bill Clinton's pen-waving veto threat more than a
decade ago on health care.
Obama's speech came as the president and his allies in Congress
readied an autumn campaign to enact his top domestic priority.
Republican opposition, contentious town hall meetings and drooping
polls have contributed to their woes. An AP-GfK survey released
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 July.
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, in a line apparently aimed
at McCain's former running mate, Sarah Palin, Obama 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
Responding on behalf of Republicans, Rep. Charles Boustany,
R-La., said 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
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
cause, and Obama spoke movingly of his efforts.
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
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.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)