WASHINGTON — With Capitol Hill lawmakers struggling to reconcile clashing views on overhauling the nation's healthcare system, President Obama on Wednesday appealed to the public not to let Congress put off action on his top legislative priority.
"In order to make it happen, I'm going to need ordinary Americans to stand up and say now's the time," Obama said at a town hall meeting at Northern Virginia Community College in the Washington suburb of Annandale, Va. "If Congress thinks that the American people don't want to see change, frankly the lobbyists and the special interests will end up winning the day."
The president issued a pointed critique of the institution where he once served, warning that lawmakers often are tempted to shunt aside politically sensitive issues.
"For those who say, 'Well, you know what, this is something that is very complicated, so we shouldn't rush into it,' that's what happens in Congress all the time," Obama said. "They have hearings, they write white papers, and then suddenly the lobbyists and the special interests start going at it. And next thing you know, another 10 years has gone by, and we still haven't done anything."
The administration has been working largely behind the scenes with congressional Democrats to develop legislation aimed at expanding coverage to all Americans, controlling costs and improving quality. But recently, the president has stepped up efforts to keep healthcare at the top of the domestic policy agenda as the party's legislative proposals have run into stiffening opposition from Republicans -- and unease from some moderate Democrats over the cost of an overhaul that is expected to top $1 trillion over the next decade.
Wednesday's forum was Obama's third grass-roots event devoted to healthcare in the last three weeks. And debate over healthcare legislation is expected to move to center stage after lawmakers return to Washington from their July 4 recess.
But leading Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, have begun to call for slower action. "We could target the things that are askew in the system and fix them without this kind of massive overhaul," McConnell said on Fox News Sunday.
At the same time, while some polls show deep public support for overhauling healthcare, there is growing discomfort with government spending -- a development some experts fear could prompt lawmakers to try to delay action.
In a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, more Americans said the deficit and government spending, rather than healthcare, should be the federal government's top priority.
"That could send a message to Congress that it is not necessary to move this year," said Robert Blendon of the Harvard University School of Public Health. "What the president has to do is keep healthcare on the agenda so there is no way that when it gets ugly, Congress can say, 'We can go home and not pass anything.' "
Obama has said he hopes to sign a healthcare bill in the fall.
On Wednesday, he implored his audience -- which submitted questions online as well as in person -- not to let that timeline slip. Obama's staff screened online questions.
As he has done in recent weeks, the president highlighted the trials of Americans trying to get medical care while employers drop insurance and insurers deny coverage.
Obama also delivered a warning to the majority of Americans who have insurance and report they are happy with their medical care.
"What's happened if you've got health insurance?" he said. "Your employer's . . . increased deductibles. They've increased premiums. Your out-of-pocket costs have gone up by about 62%. . . . Families have seen their healthcare costs double over the last nine years. So you just project out nine years from now: Your wages or incomes aren't going up that fast, which means that a bigger, bigger bite is being taken out of your paycheck even if you've got health insurance."