By Sam Youngman - 09/10/09 12:14 AM EDT
Barack Obama attempted to resurrect his stalled healthcare plan by casting it as a bipartisan approach in a tense address to Congress that was interrupted by a Republican lawmaker who accused the president of lying.
While the president did extend some olive branches to Republicans, including the idea of exploring medial malpractice reform, he did not offer the specifics that both Democrats and Republicans have been clamoring for.
Obama said Kennedy wrote him in May, after hearing his cancer was terminal, hoping "that this would be the year that healthcare reform – 'that great unfinished business of our society,' he called it – would finally pass."
"He repeated the truth that healthcare is decisive for our future prosperity, but he also reminded me that 'it concerns more than material things,'" Obama said. "'What we face,' he wrote, 'is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.'"
Despite the emotional tone, tensions on the House floor appeared to be high, and at one point, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) shouted "you lie" to the president, drawing a cold stare from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and sparking outrage among other lawmakers.
Obama's 45-minute address, the second of his short tenure, was long on emotion and short on specifics even though White House officials have said for days that the address would clear up whatever confusion the debate had created.
Obama again made an impassioned plea for insuring the uninsured and sought to assuage those concerned that a public health insurance option would mean they would lose their insurance.
The president did promise that he would veto any bill that was not deficit neutral. And he disputed "myths" that his proposal would create "death panels," finance abortions or provide government funded care to illegal immigrants.
Obama excoriated critics of his efforts, warning that while his "door is always open" to members of either party who want to offer constructive suggestions, he "will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it’s better politics to kill this plan than to appprove it."
"I won't stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are," Obama said. "If you misrepresent what’s in this plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now."
In addressing the public option, one of the more controversial aspects of his proposal, Obama sought to assuage both his allies, who have accused him of going soft, and his opponents, saying the idea is "only one part of my plan, and should not be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles."
"To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it," Obama said. "The public option is only a means to that end – and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.
"And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of healthcare, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have."
That defense notwithstanding, Obama did not issue any veto threats, and he acknowledged the merits of ideas like a health insurance cooperative or a "trigger" that would set the public option into motion down the road if insurance companies did not improve on quality and costs.
Obama described those as "all constructive ideas worth exploring" before going one step forward.
"But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can’t find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice," Obama said. "And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need."
Members of both parties were quick to describe Obama's address as disappointing for its lack of detail.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said after the speech that Obama "needs to be more direct on what the public option means and what it will do for the American people."
“President Obama was elected to bring change and progress," Grijalva said. "I fear that if my party and the president do not appreciate the mandate the American people have given us, the people will lose confidence in the idea that they can vote for change and get what they voted for."
Republicans said that the president's oratory was predictably touching, but he again failed to take leadership on some of the most controversial issues.
Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC), said that "the president has proven his ability again to speak very well and say very little."
"He continued to try and sell his government-run health care experiment even though it will increase costs, increase taxes and increase the deficit," Steele said.