- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

President Obama’s launched a TV broadcast blitz to build public support for his top domestic priority, a remake of the U.S. health care system, the fate of which now rests in the hands of a pivotal but deeply divided Senate committee.

Mr. Obama became the first president to appear on five Sunday network talk and public affairs shows in the same morning, an extraordinary effort to defend his health care overhaul, which has come under intense attack from opposition Republicans.

The interviews with ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and the Hispanic network Univision were taped Friday at the White House.

Mr. Obama also is visiting David Letterman on Monday, the first appearance ever by a sitting president on Mr. Letterman’s “Late Show.”

The media push leads up to Tuesday, when members of the Senate Finance Committee plan to start voting on their version of a health care reform bill.

Democrats on the committee are disappointed with the bill proposed by the chairman, Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat. Republicans see a chance to deliver a stunning blow to Mr. Obama that could cripple his presidency.

The 23-member committee is a microcosm of the Senate, the narrow gate through which legislation to cover the nearly 50 million uninsured Americans and try to control medical costs has to pass. If the committee can’t produce, then the ability of Mr. Obama and the Democrats to pass a bill this year will be in serious question.

Mr. Obama tried to quell criticism of a key point of the Baucus plan and other health care bills now before Congress: mandating that people get health insurance to share the cost burden fairly among all. Those who failed to get coverage would face financial penalties.

Mr. Obama said other elements of the plan would make insurance affordable for people, from establishing a new comparison-shopping “exchange” to offering tax credits.

Telling people to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase, Mr. Obama told ABC’s “This Week.”

“What it’s saying is, is that we’re not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you anymore,” Mr. Obama said. “Right now, everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase.”

Mr. Obama faces an enormous political and communications challenge in selling his health care plan as Congress debates how to pay for it all.

He told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he will keep his pledge not to raise taxes on families earning up to $250,000, and that much of the final bill — hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 10 years — can be achieved from savings within the current system. Coming up with the rest remains a key legislative obstacle.

Mr. Obama put his support behind the idea of taxing high-cost health insurance plans offered by some employers. Such expenses are now tax deductible.

Mr. Obama’s goal is to expand and improve health insurance coverage and rein in long-term costs.

Yet despite so many weeks of speeches, town halls and interviews, Mr. Obama said he has found it difficult at times to make a complex topic clear and relevant.

“I’ve tried to keep it digestible,” Mr. Obama said in one interview. “It’s very hard for people to get their arms around it. And that’s been a case where I have been humbled and I just keep on trying harder.”

Mr. Obama told Univision’s “Al Punto” (“To the Point”) that the strong opposition to his plan is part of a political strategy.

“Well, part of it is … that the opposition has made a decision,” he said. “They are just not going to support anything, for political reasons.”

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, told NBC that Democrats want a bigger role for government in health care — “a giant takeover” that he said is just not needed.

Mr. Boehner said people are “scared to death” about what may happen to the system.

On Tuesday, the focus turns to the Senate Finance Committee. Mr. Baucus, an optimist by nature, says he has the votes to get a health care bill through his committee.

But last week the chairman stood alone as he explained and defended his 10-year, $856-billion plan after spending months trying to find a compromise both political parties could support.

The second-ranking committee Democrat, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, promptly announced he couldn’t vote for the bill without major changes. Senators have readied more than 560 amendments.

The Baucus plan would offset the mandate that people must get health insurance by providing subsidies to many middle-class households and expanding government health programs for the poor. Insurers could not deny coverage based on someone’s personal health history.

The plan would be paid for with cuts in spending on Medicare and Medicaid — the government-run programs that provide health care coverage to the elderly and poor — as well as a heavy tax on high-cost health insurance plans. Mr. Baucus would not create a government plan to compete with private insurers.

While business and health industry groups generally have said good things about the proposal, core Democratic constituencies are angry.

Labor unions see the insurance tax as a direct threat to hard-won benefits. Liberals are outraged by the absence of a government insurance plan. There’s widespread concern that Mr. Baucus‘ subsidies are too meager and will stick hard-pressed households with thousands of dollars in new insurance bills.

“At the end of the day this has to work for families,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Michigan Democrat, a committee member. “The trade-off can’t be that a middle-class family won’t be able to afford the insurance in this bill.”

The committee staff tentatively has scheduled three days of work on the bill, but that may not be enough to handle the deluge of amendments.

Many Democratic amendments are geared to improving subsidies to make coverage more affordable and scaling back or replacing the proposed 35 percent tax on high-cost health insurance plans. Also on their list: adding the public government-run plan favored by liberals, as well as a requirement that employers offer coverage.

Mr. Rockefeller also wants to strike the nonprofit insurance co-ops that Mr. Baucus has proposed in lieu of a government plan.

Republicans say they’re coordinating their amendments to highlight what Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, calls “fundamental differences” with Democrats.

The top committee Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said Mr. Baucus‘ insurance requirement and fines as high as $3,800 for going without coverage amount to “a penalty against middle-class Americans.”

Republicans will try to bar funds for abortions and tighten rules to prevent benefits from going to illegal immigrants, although Mr. Baucus says his bill already does both. And they’re pushing for a bolder approach on limiting medical malpractice lawsuits.

But the senators are up against a hard barrier on costs. Mr. Obama has said he wants legislation that costs about $900 billion over 10 years. The Baucus plan is right under that level. Sweeten the subsidies too much and the cost could zoom above $1 trillion.

That’s why Democratic leaders and major interest groups backing a health care overhaul are urging the committee to pass a bill now — and try to work out problems later.

Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

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