Obama sets stage for summit fight

President Barack Obama unveiled a detailed healthcare proposal on Monday that closely tracked legislation favored by Democrats, setting the stage for a contentious bipartisan summit at the Blair House on Thursday.

Obama’s proposal was not the blank slate demanded by the GOP and was short on new ideas aimed at winning their support.

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Instead, it hews closely to the parameters of the tentative agreement being forged by Obama and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate before Sen. Scott Brown won election as a Republican in Massachusetts, depriving Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Republican leaders fiercely criticized the proposal, declaring it a partisan document that contradicts Obama’s claim that he will enter Thursday’s healthcare sit-down with an open mind.

“The president has crippled the credibility of this week’s summit by proposing the same massive government takeover of healthcare based on a partisan bill the American people have already rejected,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio.) said. “This week’s summit clearly has all the makings of a Democratic infomercial.”

White House officials insisted that Obama is willing to compromise and noted that the proposal included ideas offered by Republicans.

It includes seven different proposals aimed at reducing waste, fraud and abuse in federal healthcare programs, which were offered in legislation introduced by Rep. Mark Kirk (Ill.), the Republican who hopes to win Obama’s old Senate seat this fall.

Still, the White House also said it is prepared to use budget reconciliation rules to move healthcare legislation without any Republican votes in the Senate.

“The president expects, and believes the American people deserve, an up-or-down vote,” White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said.

“This package is designed to provide us the flexibility to achieve that if the Republicans decide to filibuster healthcare reform.”

Democratic leaders are leaning heavily toward a strategy in which the House would pass the Senate bill. Both chambers then would consider a second measure of changes to the bill that would be moved in the Senate under the special budget rules, enabling the legislation to be cleared with a simple majority vote.

The White House is not endorsing any approach, but Pfeiffer indicated the proposals released Monday were written with reconciliation in mind.
Making Obama’s proposals the foundation for Thursday’s meeting will not hamper its effectiveness, White House officials said.

“They’ve wanted to get in the same room with the president, walk through his ideas and talk about why their ideas are better,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “That’s going to happen Thursday at 10 a.m.”

Gibbs added that the public will be “disheartened” if Democrats and Republicans are incapable of even discussing their alternative ideas.

House Democratic leaders welcomed the proposal in measured statements, possibly because it closely reflects a Senate bill that leaves liberals cold.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who had said the Senate bill could not win approval in the House, said the new plan contained “positive elements” from the House and Senate bills. “I look forward to reviewing it with House members and then joining the president and the Republican leadership at the Blair House meeting on Thursday,” she said.

By contrast, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was more effusive. “The president’s health reform proposal brings together the best of the Senate bill and the best of the House bill in a fiscally responsible way,” he said.

Obama gave ground to liberals in a few key areas, as the three committee chairmen who were the House bill’s principal authors recognized.

“The plan President Obama released today keeps us moving in the right direction. It incorporates key ideas passed by the House and Senate and appears to respond to concerns raised by many House lawmakers,” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calf.) said in a joint statement.

Compared to the Senate bill, the president’s proposal would beef up the health insurance tax credits for low- and middle-income people, add even stricter federal regulation of insurance companies and premium hikes and eliminate the “doughnut hole” coverage gap in the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

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Obama also does away with the so-called Cornhusker Kickback, a politically toxic provision in the Senate bill that offered more federal Medicaid funding for Nebraska than any other state. The Senate bill and Obama’s plan would expand the joint federal-state safety-net program to everyone earning 133 percent of the federal poverty level or below.

Reid added the Medicaid dollars to secure the support of centrist Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) but the move backfired, generated intense public displeasure, gave the GOP a potent talking point and led House Democrats — and even Nelson — to disavow it. In its place, Obama proposes more generous federal funding to all states, with an additional boost for those states that have already expanded Medicaid coverage.

Likewise, Obama tries to distance himself from a deal struck last month that would have exempted labor union members from an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans for five years.

Under the new plan, not only does Obama want to raise the dollar threshold to apply the tax to fewer people and to delay its implementation until 2018, but he applies the exemption to anyone with a high-cost plan, not just union workers. House Democrats, however, have been cold to any form of the excise tax and did not include it in their bill.

Abortion also remains a challenge for Democrats, especially in the House, where Pelosi is at risk of defections from both sides. Anti-abortion-rights Democrats led by Rep. Bart Stupak (Mich.) favor a stronger prohibition on federal money being used for abortion services than the Senate bill provides. Abortion-rights supporters, however, oppose the limitations in both versions of the bill. Obama did not propose new abortion provisions.

Obama also declined to give in to liberals’ demands that he adopt the national health insurance exchanges passed by the House and retained the Senate’s state-based exchanges. The president also is silent on whether the bill should include a government-run public option, which the House approved but the Senate did not. Liberals have been trying to revive it.

Sam Youngman contributed to this article.

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