- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

President Obama’s address to Congress Wednesday night did little to immediately convert factions in the Democratic party to unify behind a health care overhaul plan Thursday, and his call for an end to “bickering” was met by Republican carping that he failed to “reset” the debate.

Liberal House lawmakers said they still want to see the president embrace a government-sponsored public insurance option as part of any bill, and centrist Democrats said they remain worried about the price tag.

“I believe a costly government-run public option is the wrong direction for reform and I will not support it,” Rep. Mike Ross, a moderate Blue Dog Democrat from Arkansas who has come out in opposition of the plan that he helped shepherd through committee, said in the aftermath of Mr. Obama’s speech.

Meanwhile, Republican National Committee chairman Michael S. Steele accused Mr. Obama of using Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death as a “political tool” to boost his efforts. Rep. Joe Wilson apologized for shouting out, “You lie,” during the address but stood by his criticism, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who exchanged words with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel on the floor after the speech, dubbed the president’s tone “combative.”

Still, Democratic leaders said they think the speech reinvigorated their efforts and will help them pass an overhaul bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada called it a game-changer, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York labeled it a tour de force.

Mr. Reid said all he needs is a few Republicans to vote for a bill.

“We’re working on very narrow margins here,” Mr. Reid said of Mr. Obama and Democrats’ efforts to sway Republicans on reform, citing other legislative victories this year with just a handful of minority votes.

“We want to continue on the road of bipartisanship that we’ve traveled so far, and there are Republicans that are out there willing to help us,” he said.

In the House, the liberal Progressive Caucus, strong proponents of a public option, sought a meeting with the White House to push their case for the controversial proposal, which helped fuel the August town-hall battles and drive down support for the overall effort.

Factions on both sides of the debate, which have been trying to bridge the divide, didn’t endorse the president’s plan but gave him the leeway to pursue a coalition for passage of the measure. And the White House continued to work on Democrats, dispatching Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to meet with lawmakers on the Hill about health care.

Sen. Max Baucus, whose Finance Committee is trying to come up with a bipartisan compromise, said the president’s speech has breathed new life into his discussions.

“We just have to keep working at it,” he said.

But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican who was involved in those discussions early on, said Thursday that he doesn’t expect any Republicans to end up supporting the proposal, the last hope for a bipartisan plan.

Republicans said they were hoping the president would “set the reset button” on health care, but said they didn’t see any bipartisan overtures in the speech.

“If his goal last night was to clarify the specifics of his proposal on health care reform and to try to reach out to those with whom he’s had some disagreement to attempt to reach bipartisan compromise, it seemed to me that he failed significantly on both grounds,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

On Thursday the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the number of people without insurance increased in 2008, and Mr. Obama said it’s another reason why Congress must act this year. About 8 million people lost insurance plans they had through their jobs, Mr. Obama said, blaming insurance companies and calling on them to change.

The president will travel to Minnesota this weekend to continue his pitch for an overhaul of health care.

The focus turns now to moderates in the Senate, where the public option isn’t likely to pass through traditional means. Mr. Obama met with more than a dozen moderate Democrats at the White House on Thursday to discuss health care reform. Many of the scheduled attendees, including Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, have been critical of the public option.

The group discussed how the bill would control costs, how savings will be calculated and how individuals with coverage now will benefit from the president’s reform plan, said Sen. Mark Begich, Alaska Democrat.

“It was a very good discussion that will move the health care issue forward,” Mr. Begich said.

The debate remains largely stalled at this point over the public health insurance option, favored by Democrats as a way of forcing insurance companies to lower costs and opposed by Republicans who say it would lead to government-run care.

Mr. Obama said in his address Wednesday that he favors the public option but left room for alternatives.

On Thursday, the substance of the president’s remarks was overshadowed by Mr. Wilson’s outburst, and the congressman appeared on radio talk-show host Sean Hannity’s program to explain himself.

“I shouldn’t have spoken out. I did immediately after the speech call the White House and I apologized that I spoke up, and then immediately they responded, ‘Thank you for calling, and in fact we want to have a civil discussion.’ So that’s what I want to do now,” Mr. Wilson said.

He also used his Twitter account to thank supporters “for your understanding and support.”

But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said a potential Democratic opponent to Mr. Wilson in next year’s election raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions after the outburst. Mr. Wilson said he’s preparing for a tough fight.

Mr. Graham, a South Carolina Republican, demurred on Thursday when asked about what appeared to be a heated exchange with Mr. Emanuel immediately following Mr. Obama’s speech.

“I have all the respect in the world for Rahm,” Mr. Graham said, declining to repeat what was said. “I just let him know I thought the speech missed the mark. … Its tone and its combative nature were inappropriate.”

Mr. Graham said he also told Mr. Emanuel that the outburst from a House GOP lawmaker - later revealed to be Mr. Wilson - was inappropriate.

Meanwhile, new polling circulated among Republicans on Capitol Hill shows that much of the public already has a firm opinion on the health care overhaul proposals on Capitol Hill, putting Democrats in a tough position to change minds.

The poll, done in late August for the Republican National Committee by OnMessage Inc., found that 71 percent of respondents don’t believe the Democrats’ claim that the health overhaul plans would not add to the national debt, and another 45 percent don’t believe the statement that patients will be able to keep their current doctors. The poll asked questions of approximately 40 percent Democrats, 40 percent Republicans and 20 percent independents.

Also on Thursday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released further analysis of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s reform legislation. The report, which looked only at portions of the bill, said that the number of Americans with employer-provided coverage would remain about the same, with some people losing coverage and some people obtaining coverage for the first time.

• Christina Bellantoni contributed to this report.

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