News & Events

Obama turns up the heat for health care bill

Prods Democrats to think past Nov.

By Helene Cooper, New York Times  |  March 9, 2010

PHILADELPHIA – President Obama challenged wavering members of his party yesterday not to give in to political fears about supporting health care legislation, asserting that the urgency of getting a bill through Congress should trump any concern about the consequences for Democrats in November.

In a high-octane appearance that harkened back to his “yes we can’’ campaign days, Obama jettisoned the professorial demeanor that has cloaked many of his public pronouncements on the issue, instead making an emotional pitch for public support as he tries to push the legislation through a final series of votes in Congress in the next several weeks.

With the fate of his signature initiative on the line, and Republicans eager to portray Democrats as out of step with the country and incapable of governing, Obama seemed to relish the opportunity to cut loose and make his case on his terms, as he often has at pivotal moments. And, with his back to the wall, he appeared intent on reassuring his party that he is as confident as ever in his powers to explain, persuade, and capture the politics of the moment.

Appearing before 1,800 students and other members of the public at Arcadia University, just outside of Philadelphia, Obama cast himself almost as an outsider in Washington, expressing disdain for “the sport of politics’’ and saying the time for endless debates is over.

“They’ve warned us we may not win,’’ Obama said of his doubters and critics. “They’ve argued now is not the time for reform. It’s going to hurt your poll numbers. How is it going to affect Democrats in November? Don’t do it now.

“My question to them is: When is the right time? If not now, when. If not us, who?’’

He struck a populist tone, setting up the health insurance industry as his main target.

“We can’t have a system that works better for the insurance companies than it does for the American people,’’ he said.

Citing big rate increases for individual insurance policies in some states – 40 percent, 60 percent, even 100 percent – he sought to focus attention on provisions in the legislation that he said would protect consumers from the worst excesses of insurers, give people more choice among insurance policies, insure most people who do not have coverage, and put downward pressure on health care costs.

Boiling down his proposal to a few sentences, Obama asked, “How many people would like a proposal that holds insurance companies more accountable? How many people would like to give Americans the same insurance choices that members of Congress get? And how many would like a proposal that brings down costs for everyone? That’s our proposal.’’

Obama also took direct aim at those who have warned that the health push could cost the Democrats their majority in the November elections. He alluded to letters he has received from cancer survivors and others who have been priced out of the health care market.

“What should I tell these Americans?’’ Obama said, to raucous cheering. “That Washington’s not sure how it will play in November? That we should walk away from this fight?’’

Obama traveled to Pennsylvania as Democratic congressional leaders raced to resolve the remaining differences between the House and Senate versions of the health care legislation and to draft formal language that would allow for a new cost estimate by the Congressional Budget Office.

Without a final proposal and new cost figures, Democrats are in no position to start twisting the arms of wavering House Democrats whose votes would be crucial to adopting first the Senate-passed health care bill, then a companion budget reconciliation measure that would include the final revisions.

As the White House and congressional leaders continued to tinker, rank-and-file lawmakers found themselves under increasing pressure.

Republicans sought to draw attention to the Democrats who may oppose the measure, including Representatives Mike Ross of Arkansas and Artur Davis of Alabama, who opposed the bill that passed the House in November. A spokesman for Ross, Brad Howard, said, “He is a `no’ at this time.’’

“We may be nearing the final act for this bill and the legislative process,’’ the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said in a floor speech yesterday. “It’s just the beginning for those who support it. Americans don’t want this bill. They’re telling us to start over. The only people who don’t seem to be getting the message are Democrat leaders in Washington.’’