Obama threatens veto over McCain healthcare plan

President Obama said in an interview Monday afternoon that he would veto a healthcare reform bill that mirrored Sen. John McCain’s proposal from the 2008 presidential campaign.

On PBS's “Newshour with Jim Lehrer,” the president noted that McCain (R-Ariz.) “proposed to eliminate completely the exclusion on the taxation of health benefits.” McCain proposed taxing all employer-provided health benefits in exchange for a tax credit taxpayers would receive to buy insurance.

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“I had said that this would be the wrong way to go because it would be too disruptive. Essentially employers would stop providing healthcare,” Obama said.  “John McCain had suggested everybody gets a tax credit, but the concern was that the tax credit wouldn’t be sufficient to actually buy health insurance on the market. So I am still opposed to that and would veto a bill if that was the approach.”

Even though the president campaigned against McCain’s plan, up to now his administration had indicated everything was on the table. The Senate Finance Committee has been mulling some type of tax on employee-provided health benefits to pay for healthcare reform, but unions oppose removing these tax-free benefits.

However, testimony last week by Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf provided some momentum to taxing the benefits. Elmendorf said taxing the benefits was one way to significantly lower healthcare costs.

Obama also repeated his desire to see legislation pass out of the House and Senate before the August recess.

“I want this done now,” Obama said. “Now, if there are no deadlines, nothing gets done in this town.”

Republicans have questioned Obama's “overly ambitious” deadline, as Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) put it last week, and many have sought to push off his deadline.

Others see healthcare reform as an opportunity to set Obama back. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said recently that defeating healthcare reform would amount to Obama’s “Waterloo.”

The president blasted that statement in remarks earlier Monday, and told Lehrer that many Republicans want to “dust off” an old playbook from the 1990s, when the Clinton administration’s healthcare reform bill was defeated.

In the interview, Obama said, “What [DeMint] is talking about is there is a certain portion of the Republican Party that views this like they saw ’93, ’94, the last time there was a major health-reform effort.

“They explicitly went after the Clintons, said, 'We’re not going to get this done,' " Obama said. “That went down and the — at least the history, the way it is viewed here in Washington — is that that is what helped defeat Democrats. So it was a pure political play, a show of strength by the Republicans that helped them regain the House.”

The president did give credit to Republican Senate Finance Committee members Snowe and Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), “who are engaged in some very difficult, very serious negotiations despite some pressure from the political operatives in their party that say, 'You shouldn’t try to be constructive or responsible.' "

Obama was asked about a recent spate of poll numbers that shows support for his healthcare reform efforts diminishing even as he remains personally popular.

“It means that what we’re doing is hard and, you know, the truth is I feel pretty good about the fact that our polls have held up under extraordinarily difficult circumstances,” Obama said. “You know, I think we may have set a very high bar for ourselves. Normally, at 59 percent, folks would say, 'We’ll take it.' "