Republicans discouraged by Obama's healthcare speech

For GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the takeaway is that the president and the Democrats are poised to move without them.

Susan Walsh/ AP
Republican Senators, center row, listen as President Barack Obama delivers a speech on healthcare to a joint session of Congress, Wednesday on Capitol Hill in Washington.

What Republican lawmakers heard from President Obama’s address to Congress Wednesday night wasn’t the invitation to join him on health reforms he sees as central to America’s well-being, but rather the message that he is prepared to move without them.

“I will continue to seek common ground in the weeks ahead. If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen,” Mr. Obama said. “But know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than improve it.”

In a silent protest, House Republicans waved copies of their own proposed legislation as the president spoke – proposals they say are serious but have not been taken seriously by House leaders or the Obama administration.

The key demand on the Republican side coming out of the president’s speech is more time to work out a bipartisan solution. Congressional leaders and the White House signaled this week that time for that has about run out.

"We’re willing to work with anyone who wants to work with us. I still think there are people on both sides who want to work with us," said presidential adviser David Axelrod, speaking to reporters after the president’s address. "But at the end of the day, this is not just a matter of process, it’s a matter of progress. We’ll do what the situation requires," he added, referring to the possibility that the Senate may resort to a tactic that requires a bare majority vote in order to advance the legislation.

Only one of five congressional panels that have taken up health reform included Republicans in the drafting of an initial bill. The one remaining opportunity for Republicans is the Senate Finance Committee, which now says it will begin to mark up a bill next week with or without a bipartisan deal.

Responding to Obama’s address, Sen. Michael Enzi (R) of Wyoming – one of the so-called Gang of Six, three Democrats and three Republicans working on a bipartisan draft – called on Democratic leaders not to put an “early end” to negotiations.

“The bipartisan talks we’re having in the Finance Committee represent the best chance we have of achieving our shared goals, and I urge Democratic leaders not to close the door on these productive discussions,” said Senator Enzi said, in a statement.

One option for moving a reform bill through the Senate is to use a procedure, called reconciliation, that allows legislation to clear with a simple majority, instead of the 60-vote supermajority that is standard for major legislation in the Senate. Leaders on both sides of the aisle have used it, but reluctantly because the procedure is complicated, risky, and typically incites the minority to be more obstructive on other issues.

Obama pointedly backed several GOP themes in his prime-time speech. For Americans who can’t get insurance today because they are diagnosed with pre-existing medical conditions, he cited a proposal by presidential rival John McCain, a senator from Arizona, to protect them against financial ruin.

“This was a good idea when Senator John McCain proposed it in the campaign. It’s a
good idea now, and we should all embrace it,” Obama said.

In a nod to GOP calls for tort reform, Obama backed a Bush administration proposal to authorize demonstration projects to test whether doctors' efforts to avoid malpractice suits are inflating healthcare costs.

“It’s a good idea, and I am directing my secretary of Health and Human Services to move forward on this initiative today,” he said.

But what GOP lawmakers took away from the speech were the president’s references to scare tactics, bogus claims, partisan spectacles, and lies, directed at them. And at least one took umbrage at Obama's statement that the reforms he is seeking would not grant health insurance to illegal immigrants.

“The president obviously said some good things, but this was a more partisan and strident speech than I had hoped for,” said Rep. David Dreier of California, the top Republican on the House Rules Committee.


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