WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama is defending his relentless campaign for a health care bill before Congress' August recess, saying "the default in Washington is inaction and inertia." Republicans assailed a rush to act on overhauling the nation's $2.4 trillion system of medical care.
The fault lines in the debate emerging as Topic A in the capital remained intact Tuesday as Obama defended the deadline, saying the American people want the overhaul done quickly. Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele demanded: "Take your time!"
At the same time, Obama remained noncommittal on a surtax to pay for the overhaul, which some experts have said could cost over $1 trillion in the next several years to reconstitute and incorporate some 46 million uninsured into the system. He did reiterate his opposition to taxing people's employer-provided health benefits, however.
The president noted in an interview on NBC's "Today" show that "the House has put forward a surtax." And he repeated his feeling that wealthier Americans, "such as myself," should pitch in and help reinvent the system to spread coverage to those now without it.
Obama has said that people making over $250,000 a year should have to pay more, and he defended his insistence on getting a bill from lawmakers before they leave next month on their summer recess. Asked why he felt so strongly about the timeline, he replied, "because if you don't set a deadline in this town, nothing happens."
"And the deadline isn't being set by me," he said. "It's being set by the American people."
Whatever the pressure points in the argument, Republicans said it's all happening too fast.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell argued that a rapid-fire approach carries pitfalls similar to ones that have affected the $787 billion economic stimulus package.
"Health care reform is too important to rush through and get wrong," the Kentucky lawmaker said in a Senate speech.
Obama acknowledged in the interview that lawmakers right now are "not where they need to be." He has invited Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to a meeting at the White House later Tuesday and he has a prime-time news conference scheduled for Wednesday night.
Asked about statements some Republicans have made indicating they think health care will damage his standing, Obama replied, "It's typical. ... Somehow people think this is about me. This is all about politics. ... All I can say is, this is absolutely important to me, but this is not as important to me as it is to the people who don't have health care. I've got health care."
"There is a constant sense of hand-wringing in this town when it comes to getting anything done," he said. "We can't stand pat and say we're going to have another 40 years of a system that doesn't work."
Obama's meeting at the White House with House Energy panel Democrats follows a committee drafting session that lasted past midnight Monday as the panel slogged through numerous amendments, with majority Democrats turning back Republican attempts to change the bill.
But Committee Chairman Henry Waxman's bigger difficulties were with his own party, particularly a bloc of fiscally conservative Democrats who oppose the legislation in its current form over costs and other issues.
Waxman and his aides have been deep in talks with these conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats, and as the panel wrapped up its work in the wee hours Waxman announced he was canceling a drafting session planned for Tuesday so negotiations could continue.
"We're having conversations with different members to work out some of the issues so we can make this thing move forward," Waxman, D-Calif., told reporters. He declined to elaborate.
The $1.5 trillion, 10-year House bill would, for the first time, require all individuals to have health insurance and all employers to provide it. The poor would get subsidies to buy insurance and insurers would be barred from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.
Prior to his meeting with the lawmakers, Obama planned brief remarks on health care, something that's become a near-daily occurrence as the president has moved swiftly from hands-off to deeply engaged on his top domestic priority.
Obama's increased personal involvement comes with Republican criticism sharpening, outside groups growing more strident and sticker shock reverberating around Capitol Hill in the wake of a bleak prognosis from the Congressional Budget Office last week saying lawmakers' health proposals wouldn't hold down costs.
Sen. John McCain, Obama's opponent in last November's election, said, "I do not underestimate the power of the president" in increasing pressure on Congress to pass a health care overhaul, but said he thought most Americans had become "very skeptical" about the proposal.
"This costs too much, taxes too much and spends too much and the American people are becoming very aware of it." the Arizona Republican said in an interview Tuesday on CNN.
A new poll, meanwhile, showed that large numbers of people are worried about whether they will have future health coverage, with nearly one in four concerned that family medical bills will drive them into bankruptcy.
The survey of 508 people was conducted in June by the nonpartisan Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
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