Democrats battle to regain healthcare momentum

Obama launched a campaign on health reform Monday, but opposition is building on both sides of the aisle.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Barack Obama talks about his plan for healthcare reform on Monday, during a visit to Children's National Medical Center in Washington.

With a self-imposed August deadline looming, Democratic leaders are struggling to regain momentum for an overhaul of the nation’s $2.3 trillion healthcare system.

President Obama launched a week of hard campaigning on the issue Monday with a broadside at a GOP charge that health reform would be his “Waterloo.”

“This isn’t about me. This isn’t about politics. This is about a healthcare system that is breaking America’s families, breaking America’s businesses and breaking America’s economy,” he said in comments at the Children’s National Medical Center.

But polls show the president is losing ground over his handling of healthcare. While most Americans still want healthcare reform, Obama’s approval ratings on the issue dropped from 57 percent in April to 49 percent in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released today.

Opposition is building on both sides of the aisle. In the House, conservative Democrats are threatening to scuttle legislation in the Energy and Commerce Committee this week unless the long-term threat to federal deficits is addressed.

In a move demonstrating their clout, seven so-called Blue Dog Democrats sided with Republicans to give the minority a rare victory on an amendment vote Friday. Within 24 hours, all seven had been targeted by ad campaigns in their districts by the Democratic National Committee or Health Care for America Now, a coalition of unions and liberal activist groups.

The seven include: Democratic Reps. John Barrow of Georgia, Baron Hill of Indiana, Jim Matheson of Utah, Charlie Melancon of Louisiana, Mike Ross of Arkansas, Bart Stupak of Michigan, and Zack Space of Ohio.

Early on, the White House and Democratic leaders had hoped that a reform plan could squeeze waste out of the system and generate savings with reforms such as a shift to electronic medical records.

“I think the single most important thing is this proposal that we have for an independent commission to help bring down costs over the long term,” said White House Office of Management and Budget director Peter Orzag Sunday.

But the independent Congressional Budget Office (CBO), which scores the long-term cost of proposed legislation, isn’t buying it. Last week CBO director Douglas Elmendorf told the Senate Budget panel that neither the House nor Senate plans provided the “fundamental changes” needed to change the unsustainable rise in federal health spending.

“On the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for federal healthcare costs,” he said. To close that gap, Congress has two big options, he added.

One is to add to the revenue side by changing the tax exclusion for employer health benefits and/or taxing wealthy families to pay for expansion of healthcare. A second option is to offset costs by cutting Medicare or Medicaid benefits.

Both involve significant political costs. On Monday, a leading House Democrat signaled that party leaders may be backing off plans to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for health reform. Rep. James Clyburn, the House majority whip, said that the new tax may not be needed, if savings materialize, in an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe.

On Friday, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina told conservatives in a conference call that if the GOP lost on healthcare, “we’ll probably have half of our economy in some way controlled by the federal government.” [Editor's note: The original version gave the wrong political affiliation for Senator DeMint.]

“If we’re able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him,” he said.


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