Obama's speech fails to move many lawmakers' votes

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 10, 2009 

WASHINGTON — If President Barack Obama was looking for a big bounce in support from lawmakers Thursday from his health care address to Congress on Wednesday night, he didn't get it.

Predictably, Democratic leaders of Congress praised Obama's speech effusively, and Republicans in both chambers remained unmoved. However, several rank-and-file Democrats said that the president made only incremental progress, at best, toward moving health care legislation forward, and that lawmakers could backslide at any time.

"Of course you'll get a bounce now, but two weeks from now, we are likely to be just where we are, negotiating among ourselves," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., who's a liberal.

Blue Dog Democrats, 52 moderate to conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives, remained concerned about the cost of Obama's proposals and their impact on small businesses. Obama put the price tag at $900 billion over 10 years and said it would be paid for largely by trimming waste from Medicare and Medicaid.

Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., a Blue Dog and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he liked what he heard in terms of cost and payments, but he stopped short of embracing Obama's plan without seeing it in legislative form.

"I want to see some (Congressional Budget Office) estimates," he said.

Centrists of both parties echoed Bishop's sentiments.

"I remain deeply concerned" about the potential debt, said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a key moderate.

Most liberal House Democrats, primarily the 42 members of the black caucus and the 80-plus-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, remained firm in insisting on including a "public option" government alternative to private insurers in the health care plan. They say that's the only way to spur competition among private insurers and drive down health care costs.

Some liberals, however, including Senate Democratic leaders, signaled that they could accept something less eventually.

"The public option is in the eye of the beholder," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., "There are different types of public options. We're going to look at all of them." He wouldn't be more specific.

Obama said he supported the public option but added that alternative ideas such as health insurance co-ops were "ideas worth exploring."

Many liberal Democrats in Congress still don't think so.

"Co-ops are a cop-out," Hastings said. "You would need a huge amount of people to make them work."

Republicans found little to their liking, despite Obama's overtures to them. His biggest olive branch to the party — a proposal for pilot programs for restricting medical malpractice lawsuits — fell flat, even though restricting lawsuits against doctors has been a favored Republican cause for years.

When House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, was asked how he felt about Obama's proposal, he said the president "could do a lot more."

"I'm hoping he'll work with us to have real medical malpractice reform, because if it's not real medical malpractice reform, the defensive medicine, which is where all the savings are, won't be accomplished."

Doctors who perform tests that aren't medically necessary to ensure that they won't be sued successfully are said to practice "defensive medicine."

Boehner stuck to Republican positions that the Democratic health care proposals would give illegal immigrants health care, pay for abortions and establish panels that make life and death decisions even though Obama said they wouldn't. Obama's not alone: PolitiFact.com, a truth-squad venture run by the St. Petersburg Times newspaper, researched the questions and found that there's no subsidy for illegal immigrants in the legislation and no "death panels," either. In addition, the legislation includes no public money for abortion.

"All of us know there's a lot of emotion around this issue of government involvement in our health care," Boehner said when he was asked whether he thought his members disrespected Obama on Wednesday night. "We ought to have civil discourse in America, but don't underestimate the amount of emotion that people are feeling."

Republicans aren't the only ones voicing such concerns. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said that Obama did nothing to dispel talk that his plan would provide public funds for abortions, which he called a "nonstarter" for anti-abortion Democrats.

Not everyone was gloomy about Obama's speech. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., said that by mentioning his father, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Obama showed lawmakers that there could be a path forward on health care.

"It was just a reminder that it's inconceivable not to proceed in a bipartisan way," Kennedy said.

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