President Barack Obama, two days after signaling retreat on a massive health care overhaul, discounted the small-bore approach Friday and pledged to press for ambitious changes despite running into a “bit of a buzz saw” of opposition.
Even as the president sought to bring the public and nervous Democrats back on board, a leading member of his party suggested Congress slow it down on health care, a sign of eroding political will in the wake of Tuesday’s Republican election upset in Massachusetts.
Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who ushered the overhaul legislation through the Senate’s health committee last year after the death of his friend, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, said Obama and lawmakers could “maybe take a breather for a month, six weeks.”
“Maybe we do need to take this time. Look, it didn’t work, this process,” Dodd said, adding that Obama’s leadership was needed to get things back on track.
The president didn’t offer a specific prescription for moving forward Friday, but he did deliver a full-throated defense of his signature domestic issue, which threatens to stall in Congress after Massachusetts voters denied Democrats their filibuster-proof Senate majority. Lawmakers ended the week having charted no clear path, though aides promised to work through the weekend to look for a compromise, possibly one that could allow the Senate to act with a simple majority instead of the 60-vote supermajority Democrats now lack.
Just a week ago the health legislation had appeared on the cusp of passage after Obama threw himself into marathon negotiations with congressional leaders to work out differences between the House and Senate bills.
“There are things that have to get done. This is our best chance to do it. We can’t keep on putting this off,” Obama said Friday at a town hall meeting in Elyria, Ohio, warning listeners that spiraling medical costs threaten to bankrupt them and the country unless Congress acts.
“I am not going to walk away just because it’s hard,” the president said. He acknowledged the ugliness of the legislative process, saying that with lawmakers cutting deals to secure votes “it starts looking like just this monstrosity. And it makes people fearful.”
In his remarks, Obama seemed to pull back from a suggestion he made on Wednesday that lawmakers unite behind the elements of the legislation everyone can agree on. Obama said that approach presented problems because some of the popular ideas, like new requirements on insurance companies, couldn’t be done without getting many more people insured.
“A lot of these insurance reforms are connected to some other things we have to do to make sure that everybody has some access to coverage,” he said. For example, insurers wouldn’t be able to end a practice like denying coverage to people with pre-existing health conditions unless more people were covered. Otherwise people could wait until they got sick to buy insurance, and premiums could skyrocket.
Obama’s earlier comments in an ABC News interview had muddied the waters for Democratic leaders who were scrambling to unite the rank and file behind the quickest path forward, which was viewed as the White House’s preferred option — for the House to pass the Senate’s health care bill unchanged, obviating the need for further Senate action. By Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was ruling that out, saying House Democrats had too many problems with the Senate’s version to pass it without changes. If Obama still wants a comprehensive reform bill his options are limited, one of them being for the House to approve the Senate’s bill and for both chambers to agree to changes to it, possibly limited to budget-related items that under complex Senate rules require just a simple majority.
Obama has used immense political capital to advance the health care overhaul and remake a system that has frustrated past administrations, most recently Democrat Bill Clinton in 1994. Whether he can succeed where others have failed is now anything but clear, and Obama seemed to acknowledge as much.
“Here’s the good news. We’ve gotten pretty far down the road, but I have to admit, we had a little bit of a buzz saw this week,” the president said.
“I understand that, why after the Massachusetts election people in Washington were all in a tizzy, trying to figure out what this means for health reform, Republicans and Democrats, what does it mean for Obama, is he weakened, is he, oh, how’s he going to survive this — that’s what they do,” Obama said. “But I want you to understand, this is not about me. This is about you.”
It was Kennedy’s longtime Senate seat that changed party hands on Tuesday with the victory of Republican Scott Brown, a bitter irony for Democrats since universal health coverage had been Kennedy’s lifelong goal, and Brown has pledged to be the GOP’s decisive 41st vote against overhaul legislation.
Notwithstanding the comments Friday from Dodd, who is not seeking re-election this year, Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have both insisted the health care legislation will go forward, and Reid spokesman Jim Manley said Friday that hasn’t changed.