Thursday, 25 February 2010

Barack Obama lays out case for health reform in live debate

The Independent (UK), 25 February 2010

President Barack Obama both wooed and blasted Republicans who have impeded his health care plan in an extraordinary live TV summit today.

He called the meeting with the aim of breaking a partisan deadlock over his top domestic priority.

And with the unprecedented, day-long policy debate available from start to finish to a divided public, Mr Obama and Democratic leaders cast the reform they want as critical to tackling an issue that is even more pressing to many Americans - the struggling economy.

Passing a version of the bill that Republicans managed to block despite solid Democratic majorities in Congress also is critical to the president's political future and that of his party ahead of congressional elections in November.

With that in mind, Mr Obama was trying to boost support from moderate Democratic politicians, who could face the wrath of conservative voters if they back their president's plan.

"We all know that this is urgent," Mr Obama said.

At stake is the Democrats' stalled legislation to extend coverage to more than 30 million people who are now uninsured.

Polls show Americans want their elected leaders to address the problems of high medical costs, eroding access to coverage and uneven quality. But the public is split over the Democrats' sweeping legislation, with its trillion-dollar, 10-year price tag and many complex provisions.

For Mr Obama, the summit is his chance to make a compelling closing argument to the American people. If he succeeds, Democrats will push ahead to pass the legislation with a package of revisions he's proposed. If he falters, another Democratic president will have been humbled by health care. He will have to appeal to both sides to at least give him a modest bill smoothing some of the rough edges from the current system.

Mr Obama lamented the partisan bickering that has stalled the health care legislation. "Politics I think ended up trumping practical common sense," he said. But, he noted, "everybody here understands the desperation that people feel when they're sick. And I think everybody here is profoundly sympathetic and wants to make sure that we have a system that works for all Americans."

And yet, even as he pleaded for cooperation he acknowledged agreement may not be possible. "I don't know that those gaps can be bridged," Mr Obama said. "If not, at least we will have better clarified for the American people what the debate is all about."

Both chambers of Congress passed separate bills last year. But before the two versions could be reconciled, Republicans captured the Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election to replace the late Edward Kennedy. That cost Democrats the 60-vote supermajority needed to overcome Republican procedural obstacles and pass major legislation.

Public scepticism about the health care plan was seen as contributing to the Republican victory in Massachusetts, an overwhelmingly Democratic state. With the supermajority lost and Democrats getting nervous, the White House had been expected to shift its attention to job creation, an issue more likely to resonate with voters.

Disagreements were not always expressed diplomatically today.

Republican Senator Lamar Alexander challenged Mr Obama's claim that insurance premiums would fall under the Democratic legislation. "You're wrong," he said. The president responded: "I'm pretty certain I'm not wrong."

Despite losing their supermajority, Democrats can still pass major health legislation by using special budget rules that require only a simple majority. They have been reluctant to use that process so far because it would enrage Republicans and further worsen the partisan divide.

Another alternative if bipartisan agreement eludes Mr Obama today is going smaller, with a modest bill that would merely smooth some of the rough edges from the current system.

The White House developed the slimmed-down health care proposal so the president will know what the impact would be if he chooses that route, according to a Democratic official familiar with the discussions.