- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

President Obama, seeking to reclaim momentum in the push for health care reform, told a prime-time national audience that their future was at stake in the debate and predicted the final deal would attract some Republican support.

At his 10th extended news conference since taking office six months ago, Mr. Obama frankly acknowledged rising skepticism among voters about his ambitious plan, saying Americans feel “understandably queasy” about the ballooning federal debt.

“The debt and the deficit are deep concerns of mine. I am very worried about federal spending,” he said, adding that his actions have cut $2.2 trillion from a $9.3 trillion projected deficit over the next 10 years.

“It’s not enough,” he said, but insisted that controlling health care costs was central to the fight against the deficit.

“Health care reform is not going to add to that deficit. It’s designed to lower it. That’s part of the reason why it’s so important to do and to do now,” he said, warning voters not to be duped by critics and special interests trying to derail an overhaul of the country’s health care system.

The president spoke in broad terms and declined to back specific bills working their way through Congress, saying he appreciated Republicans who were contributing to improving the bills.

He denied that he had made health care a partisan issue, but complained that some Republicans wanted to see him lose the issue.

“The politics may dictate that they don’t vote for health care reform because they think, you know, it will make Obama more vulnerable. But if they’ve got a good idea, we’ll still take it,” he said, later citing his support for a Republican proposal for an independent panel to oversee Medicare spending and policies.

In one of the few questions not related to health care, Mr. Obama was asked about the record profits that banks and Wall Street firms have been reporting just months into a massive federal bailout of the financial sector.

Mr. Obama said he was pleased that banks were returning to profitability, but added, “What we haven’t seen I think is the kind of change in behavior and practices on Wall Street that would ensure that we don’t find ourselves in the fix where we’ve got to bail out these folks again.”

He said legislation he has proposed to Congress includes new regulations to control executive compensation and limit excessive risk-taking.

Mr. Obama, whose personal popularity remains high but is slipping in the polls, aimed his comments at voters who polls say are increasingly critical of the proposals now being discussed in Washington. A recent Gallup Poll showed 50 percent of Americans disapprove of the health reform plans and just 44 percent approve.

Republicans said Mr. Obama was struggling to overcome what even Democrats consider to be shortcomings with the reform package.

“The irony of the last several weeks is that as the president and Democrat leaders try desperately to point fingers at Republicans, it’s rank-and-file Democrats in the House and Senate who are some of their most vocal opponents,” said Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Mr. Obama said the rising doubts about health care reform were a case of people being more comfortable with the “devil they know” than “the devil they don’t know,” but added, “I’m confident we’ll have a bill in the end that Democrats and some Republicans can support.”

Mr. Obama promised that reform would provide security for people with insurance and provide the uninsured a choice of quality, affordable coverage through a health insurance exchange, a marketplace that he said would promote choice and competition.

The president fielded 10 questions Wednesday, none about foreign policy crises in areas such as North Korea or Honduras.

The impact of health care reform on the federal deficit has become a chief stumbling block to the health care efforts in Congress, as conservative Blue Dog Democrats hesitate to sign on to a bill that they say threatens to bankrupt the country.

Just hours before the press conference, progress again appeared to stall on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, dropped out of the group of six bipartisan negotiators in the Senate Finance Committee, saying it had become clear to him that he could not support the emerging compromise blueprint.

Mr. Hatch said committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, has “not been given the flexibility necessary to construct a realistic health care reform bill that can achieve true bipartisan support.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House was on track to pass a health care bill before the August recess, a deadline set by Mr. Obama. But it became more likely that the Senate would not finish its work in time.

“I have no question that we have the votes on the floor of the House to pass this legislation,” Mrs. Pelosi said, contradicting skeptics who say Blue Dog opposition could scuttle the bill.

At the news conference, Mr. Obama said he realized that the charges and criticisms being lobbed in Washington left many Americans wondering, “What’s in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health insurance reform?”

He set out to answer those questions, noting that Congress is still working on key details of the plan but has reached agreements on a few significant issues, including guaranteeing that the government will not dictate medical decisions and insurance companies cannot drop coverage of sick people or deny coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.

Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.

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