U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) said she would refuse to vote for a healthcare reform package that did not include a provision for creating a government-run medical insurance plan that would compete with private insurers -- a statement that drew loud cheers Saturday at a town hall meeting at Los Angeles Southwest College.
The statement appeared to illustrate hardening lines in the battle over healthcare reform in Congress. Waters voiced dismay with comments made by White House officials last week that have been widely perceived as backing down from the so-called public option.
"President Obama has been trying to reach across the aisle" to win a compromise with Republicans, Waters said. "It is not going to happen."
Then Waters made a public appeal to Obama.
"The people of this country elected you and gave you a Democratic majority in the House and the Senate. . . . Yes, we know that you are a nice man, that you want to work with the opposite side of the aisle. But there comes a time when you need to drop that and move forward," Waters said. "We're saying to you, Mr. President, 'Be tough. Use everything that you've got. Do what you have to do. And we have your back.' "
The town hall meeting was notable for those who didn't show up: enraged hecklers adamantly opposed to healthcare reform, who have disrupted similar events across the country.
Linda Krausen, a South Pasadena resident who attended a contentious town hall in Alhambra earlier this month, marveled at the difference. In Alhambra, "it was such a shouting match," Krausen said. "I could actually understand what's on the table here."
Waters reserved her most searing critiques for Senate Democrats who have not embraced the public option.
"Not only are we going to do everything we can to organize and put pressure on the senators -- some of whom are Neanderthals -- we're going to say to the president, 'We want you to use every weapon in your basket in order to get those senators to do what they should be doing,' " Waters said.
The town hall meeting was held in an area of the county that is home to impoverished neighborhoods that have long struggled with inadequate access to healthcare.
The need for healthcare services was vividly illustrated in the last two weeks when thousands of people lined up for hours at the Forum in Inglewood at an eight-day free health clinic. The crowds were so large that many in need were turned away.
Joseph Price, an emergency medical technician from Pico Rivera who volunteered at the Forum, was upset that so many had to depend on chance to find healthcare.
"It shouldn't have to be a matter of winning the Lotto," Price told the town hall.
Some attendees at the meeting, while supporting reform, were worried that they were not winning broad support for the public option. One man noted that Waters expressed her vision for healthcare reform by going over more than a dozen key points, and said that the complicated rationales for healthcare reform were making it difficult to win converts.
"This is not an easy idea" to argue, the man said. "The question is, how do you simplify the message? Until it gets simple, how can you win the debate?"
There was no easy answer.
"Every day, we're working to try to refine the message," Waters said.