Liberal, centrist Dems praise Obama speech

Senate Democrats were similarly emboldened by President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress.

Despite months on intraparty bickering -- for one night at least --  Obama allowed nearly all congressional Democrats to believe he was speaking directly to them.

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Whether that solves one of the biggest problems Obama came before Congress to fix – a Democratic Caucus in the House split passionately between those who believe that no healthcare bill is worth the trouble without a public plan and those who believe that such a public option is bad policy and worse politics – remains to be seen.

There was scant criticism of the president’s speech, which seemed to be universally praised by Democrats for its passion, timeliness and message.

But there was also an acknowledgement that, specifically in terms of the public option debate, that Obama once again walked the line.

“I'm going to choose to look at this as an endorsement of the public plan,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.). “There's no doubt there's something of a dance of the seven veils here.”

Other staunch supporters of the public option came away happy, even though Obama said he was open to ideas that supporters generally consider unacceptable, such as health cooperatives and systems in which the government-run plan is a fall-back option.

“He kept it on the table and he kept it alive,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said. “Many people said it was dead.”

Other liberals were more than willing to let the public option take a different form now that Obama has pledged to “not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can’t find affordable coverage, we will provide [them] with a choice.”

“I’m not going to quibble over what something is called,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), one of the leaders of the Progressive Caucus who last month rallied liberals to threaten to derail Obama’s signature policy issue if a public option was stripped for the sake of political feasibility. “I’m going to quibble over whether or not something leads to quality, affordable coverage for every American.”

On the flip side, more conservative members of the Caucus heard exactly what they needed to hear, as well.

“I think clearly he indicated that he felt the public option would be an attractive way to help keep the insurance industry honest, but he’s not married to it,” said Rep. Zack Space (D-Ohio), one of the seven Blue Dog Democrats on the Energy and Commerce panel who forced a weakening of the public option in their committee’s bill, and who stoked the ire of House liberals in the process. “It’s part of his plan, he’d like to see it, but clearly he’s willing to accept a non-public option plan that accomplishes a similar purpose.”

Space said Obama’s speech hit all the right notes.

“He underscored both the moral and economic imperative associated with healthcare reform, and the need to do it in a non-reactionary, non-radical fashion, a sense of moderation and reasonableness, and it’s my hope that members on both sides of the aisle will take note and start working in the spirit of compromise,” Space said.

Those comments were largely echoed by Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who has spent decades pushing for a single-payer system healthcare system.

“He made the moral case for his bill and our bill. He made the legislative case for it and the economic case for it,” Dingell said. “He set out all the things that are in the bill, and what's not in the bill and how it’s going to be paid for.”

Dingell opposes co-ops but he said he was encouraged by Obama's remarks on a public plan.

“The president did not endorse either [a trigger or co-ops] and he did not dispute them, but he said he's willing to consider them,” Dingell said. “What I heard on the public option sounded good to me.”

Among Democratic fence-sitters in the upper chamber, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana said Obama's speech offered “clarity.” Nelson and Landrieu are among a handful of Democrats who are wavering in their support for a public-option component to a healthcare bill.

“Obviously there are details we haven't seen that are going to be important,” Nelson said. “It's not clear on whether the public option is still alive or whether it will be up-front or on the back-side, with a trigger or maybe not in the plan at all... I can't be for anything until I've seen everything. He did an outstanding job of giving some clarity, because up until now we have not really known where the White House was going to be, based on bits and pieces of various speeches around the country.”

Landrieu said Obama did his part to reach out to Republicans, and that the GOP should reciprocate.

“I hope that some Republicans, more than just the few that have stepped up, will reach back in a sincere way,” she said. “There is a compromise to be had. This public option still has to be shaped or changed.”

But Senate GOP members stuck to their guns following the speech, saying Obama offered only campaign-style “platitudes” instead of specifics.

“To call the two bodies together and to hear what I would call as platitudes was just odd,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). “I actually know less today about where they're headed than I did this weekend.”

There was a measure of grudging respect among Republicans for Obama's call for some medical malpractice limits, however, with some expressing surprise that the president did so.

“I was very pleased to see that he ran the risk of offending some of his Democratic colleagues,” said Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah). “That was a concession we were all delighted to see.”



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