In a blitz on the Sunday morning talks shows, President Obama rejected the criticism that his proposed mandate that all Americans carry health insurance coverage will burden poor Americans with a new tax and defended critics against claims that their remarks are based on race.
Mr. Obama, who opposed the insurance mandate during the 2008 presidential election, finds himself defending the measure against lawmakers who worry that the exemptions written into the requirement won't relieve enough poor Americans of the cost.
"What it's saying is, is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you any more than the fact that right now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance," Mr. Obama said on ABC's "This Week." "People say to themselves, that is a fair way to make sure that, if you hit my car, that I'm not covering all the costs."
Mr. Obama made appearances Sunday on NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and Univision in an attempt to regain direction in the health care debate as it reaches a critical stage. On Tuesday, debate is set to begin in the Senate Finance Committee, the last of five congressional panels required to pass a reform bill before it reaches a vote on the full House or Senate floor.
"The key is now to just narrow the differences," Mr. Obama said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
But those differences are not so small. Divisions remain on the government-funded public insurance option and how to pay for the reform plans.
And now, the insurance mandate is being criticized by lawmakers and Americans who say that the cost of coverage will amount to a new tax that would violate the president's campaign pledge against imposing new taxes on Americans who make under $250,000.
Mr. Obama said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that he would keep his promise and that the cost of the bill - which he projects will cost $900 billion - can be covered by savings from the current health care system.
He later denied that the insurance requirement, and subsequent fine for failing to meet it, would amount to a new "tax" on Americans.
"My critics say everything is a tax increase," Mr. Obama said on "This Week." "For us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase."
The mandate is intended to ensure that all Americans have access to preventive care measures and protect doctors and hospitals from having to eat the costs of emergency coverage for the uninsured. Analysts say that those costs are then shifted to consumers who have insurance, further driving up costs.
Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, members of the Senate Finance Committee, separately have criticized the Senate Finance Committee proposal for failing to help middle-class Americans who will have to buy coverage.
"At the end of the day in this health reform debate, working families will want to know if they will have more affordable health care options, and I could not look them in the eye right now and tell them that the Senate Finance Committee bill delivers," Mr. Wyden said.
Mr. Rockefeller, whose state has many coal miners with expensive health coverage, said the bill would hurt them. He's not supporting the Finance Committee bill in its current form, saying he hopes to amend it.
Republicans view Tuesday's session in the Finance Committee as their last chance to stop or dramatically change Democrats' health care reform plans. Democrats, not entirely happy with the more moderate Finance Committee bill, want to change the legislation but not so much that Mr. Obama's top legislative priority stalls.
Mr. Obama said in an interview on Univision that he'd like some Republican votes on the bill.
"But I don't count on them," he said. "And I'm confident that we're gonna get health care passed."
Mr. Obama also said Sunday that he doesn't agree with recent comments from former President Jimmy Carter that "an overwhelming portion" of the criticism over health care is based on the president's race.
"This debate that is taking place is not about race. It's about people being worried about how our government should operate," he said. "I do think we all have an obligation to try to conduct this conversation in a very civil way."