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Obama challenges critics on health care

President Barack Obama pushed back hard against Republican critics of his health care overhaul plan, dismissing the "politics of the moment" marked by Republican comparisons of his efforts to socialism.

world Updated: Jul 21, 2009 12:59 IST

President Barack Obama pushed back hard against Republican critics of his health care overhaul plan, dismissing the "politics of the moment" marked by Republican comparisons of his efforts to socialism.

Obama has made revamping the country's $2.4 trillion health care system a top priority of his administration, and his strong words on Monday came just hours after opposition Republicans ratcheted up their criticism of the president and congressional Democrats. Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican Party, likened Obama's plans to socialism, viewed as a derogatory term in many US households _ and argued that the president, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and key congressional committee chairmen are part of a "cabal" that wants to implement government-run health care. The United States is the only developed nation that does not have a comprehensive national health care plan for all its citizens, leaving about 50 million of America's 300 million people without health insurance.

Obama campaigned on a promise to offer affordable health care to all Americans, but the recession and a deepening budget deficit have made it difficult to win support for costly new programs. The White House also faced troubling news in the latest polling, with approval of Obama's handling of health care slipping. "We can't afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care," Obama said after meeting with doctors, nurses and other health care workers at Children's National Medical Center. "Not this time. Not now. There are too many lives and livelihoods at stake."

Without mentioning his critic by name, the president recounted South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint's comment that stopping Obama's bid for health care overhaul could be the president's "Waterloo," a reference to the site of Napoleon's bitter defeat in 1815.

"This isn't about me," Obama responded. "This isn't about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses and breaking America's economy."

Striking a more populist tone than in past remarks, the president complained that "health insurance companies and their executives have reaped windfall profits from a broken system." "Let's fight our way through the politics of the moment," Obama said. "Let's pass reform by the end of this year." That reflects a shift in a timetable he has stressed repeatedly. Obama had said previously that he wanted the House and Senate to vote on legislation before lawmakers leave town for their August recess, with a comprehensive bill for him to sign in October. "I want this done now. Now, if there are no deadlines, nothing gets done in this town," Obama told PBS's "The NewsHour." "If somebody comes to me and says 'It's basically done, it's going to spill over by a few days or a week,' you know, that's different." Steele accused Obama of conducting a risky experiment that will hurt the economy and force millions to drop their current coverage. "Obama-Pelosi want to start building a colossal, closed health care system where Washington decides. Republicans want and support an open health care system where patients and doctors make the decisions," Steele said in a speech at the National Press Club. Asked whether Obama's health care plan represented socialism, Steele responded: "Yes. Next question."

Obama has said he does not favor a government-run health care system. Legislation taking shape in the House envisions private insurance companies selling coverage in competition with the government.

The president is struggling to advance his trademark health care proposal after a period of evident progress. Two of three House committees have approved their portions of the bill, while one of two Senate panels have acted. A Washington Post-ABC News survey released Monday shows approval of Obama's handling of health care overhaul slipping below 50 percent for the first time. The president, who spent most of last week making his plea for health care overhaul, was pressing his case hard again this week, first at the children's hospital, and later this week in a prime-time news conference Wednesday and a town hall in Ohio on Thursday.

On Tuesday, he planned to meet with Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the one House committee that hasn't yet acted on the bill.

Energy and Commerce wrapped up a lengthy meeting after midnight Monday. The panel chairman, Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California, announced it would not reconvene until Wednesday. There were signs that some of the concerns of conservative Democrats on the committee were being addressed. Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, who with other anti-abortion Democrats had threatened to oppose the bill over concerns it would fund abortions, said a compromise was being worked out.

Meanwhile Pelosi is floating an idea that could make proposed tax increases to pay for the health care overhaul more palatable to fiscally conservative Democrats. She would like to limit income tax increases to couples making more than $1 million a year and individuals making more than $500,000, Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said Monday. The bill passed by the House Ways and Means Committee last week would increase taxes on couples making as little as $350,000 a year and individuals annually making as little as $280,000.

In the Senate, negotiators seeking a bipartisan compromise reported progress Monday. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, said there's tentative agreement on four big policy issues out of a list of about one dozen. He would not elaborate.

Obama and Democratic leaders face a new batch of ads. Republican officials said they were supplementing Steele's speech with a round of television advertising designed to oppose government-run health care. The 30-second commercial, titled "Grand Experiment," criticizes recent government aid to the auto industry and banks as "the biggest spending spree in our history" and warns similarly of "a risky experiment with our health care." The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business group, planned to announce ads of its own Tuesday criticizing the government-run insurance proposal, saying it would threaten employer-provided coverage.

Separately, the insurance industry, which challenged then-President Bill Clinton's health care effort in the early 1990s, launched a $1.4 million ad campaign, its first TV ads of this year's health care fight. The multimillion-dollar campaign, being aired nationally on cable stations, restates the industry's support for an overhaul that provides universal coverage and its offer to cover people who are already sick. The ad campaign does not mention the insurers' strong opposition to creating a government-run insurance option.