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Healthcare reform tops agenda for Obama's prime-time news conference

The president will keep up the pressure for swift action from Congress despite complaints that he is moving too fast.

July 23, 2009|Peter Nicholas, Christi Parsons and Noam N. Levey

WASHINGTON — With many Americans growing anxious about his plans to overhaul the nation's healthcare system, President Obama on Wednesday sought to lay out in personal terms how they stand to gain from the legislation that he has made one of the top goals of his presidency.

Obama acknowledged that the public had become skeptical of health proposals being debated in Congress, but he defended his push to move quickly on the legislation -- which aims to give more people insurance coverage and rein in rising healthcare costs.

"I'm rushed, because I get letters every day from families that are being clobbered by healthcare costs," Obama said in a prime-time news conference.

The news conference was unusual in its near-total focus on a single issue: healthcare. Foreign policy did not come up.

Obama also touched on the economic downturn and the degree to which he has run an open government. But he reserved his sharpest comments for a police case involving his friend Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor.

Gates, who is African American, was arrested last week for disorderly conduct after police responded to a reported break-in at his rented home in Cambridge, Mass. The charges later were dropped. Obama, though acknowledging that he did not know all the facts of the incident, said in response to a reporter's question that "the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home."

Speaking in the East Room of the White House, the president questioned the motives of those opposed to a healthcare overhaul. Arrayed against the initiative, he said, were Republican critics determined to saddle him with a high-profile defeat that would weaken him politically.

He referred to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who had said that if Obama could be stymied on healthcare, "it will break him."

"This isn't about me," the president said. "I have great health insurance, and so does every member of Congress. . . . This is about every family, every business and every taxpayer who continues to shoulder the burden of a problem that Washington has failed to solve for decades."

During much of the hourlong news conference, Obama relied on jargon that Washington insiders embrace but that might leave the typical television viewer mystified. Discussing government spending, he mentioned "the supplemental" -- referring to a war-funding bill. He used the word "incentivize" several times.

The purpose of Obama's appearance was to regain momentum for proposals to make major changes to the healthcare system, one of his top domestic priorities.

Even fellow Democrats now say that the deadline Obama set for the House and Senate to pass a bill before their August recess is unrealistic.

And mounting opposition from powerful interest groups has been equally worrisome for the White House. On Wednesday, the American Hospital Assn. urged its members to lobby against an administration proposal for an independent agency that would set Medicare payment rates. Supporters say the agency would help control costs.

In the House, centrist Democrats have slowed progress in one key committee with complaints that the bill does not do enough to bring down healthcare costs. In the Senate, finance committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has been working with a small, bipartisan group of senators to develop a separate proposal.

That effort was dealt a minor setback Wednesday when Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, one of the Republicans in the group, said he could no longer support it.

Appealing directly to the public, Obama sent a message that doing nothing would impose a huge cost on families.

"If somebody told you that there is a plan out there that is guaranteed to double your healthcare costs over the next 10 years, that's guaranteed to result in more Americans losing their healthcare, and that is by far the biggest contributor to our federal deficit -- I think most people would be opposed to that," Obama said.

"Well, that's the status quo. . . ." he continued. "So, if we don't change, we can't expect a different result."

The president offered encouraging words for a proposal by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to finance part of the overhaul with a new tax on couples who make more than $1 million a year.

"That meets my principle that it's not being shouldered by families who are already having a tough time," he said.

He also reiterated his support for a government insurance program that would compete with private insurers. But Obama did not signal whether he would try to push lawmakers to adopt one healthcare proposal over another.

"What I want to do is to see what emerges from these committees, continuing to work to find more savings," he said of the congressional panels working on legislation.

After the news conference, some Republicans said that they were less than impressed.

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