JIM LEHRER: The president stepped up the pressure today for votes on health care reform in the next few weeks, and he challenged Republicans not to block that action.
Jeffrey Brown begins our coverage.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you so much.
JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama made his appeal in a speech at the White House, as an audience of health care workers looked on.
BARACK OBAMA: I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on health care reform.
JEFFREY BROWN: The president said his bill improves on an approach that evolved through debate over the last year.
BARACK OBAMA: And since then, every idea has been put on the table, every argument has been made, everything there is to say about health care has been said…
BARACK OBAMA: … and just about everybody has said it.
BARACK OBAMA: So, now is the time to make a decision about how to finally reform health care so that it works, not just for the insurance companies, but for America’s families and America’s businesses.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Obama plan builds largely on the Senate bill, calling for new insurance regulations, and requiring that 31 million uninsured Americans buy coverage starting in 2014, with federal assistance.
But it would also create a federal body with power to block premium hikes, and it would end special Medicaid deals for Nebraska and other states, while adding more Medicaid money for all states to pay for expansion.
At last week’s summit meeting with Republicans, the president promised to include GOP proposals. He said today he’s keeping that promise, but he rejected demands to start from scratch.
BARACK OBAMA: But, given these honest and substantial differences between the parties about the need to regulate the insurance industry and the need to help millions of middle-class families get insurance, I don’t see how another year of negotiations would help.
Moreover, the insurance companies aren’t starting over. They’re continuing to raise premiums and deny coverage as we speak.
For us to start over now could simply lead to delay that could last for another decade or even more. The American people and the U.S. economy just can’t wait that long.
So, no matter which approach you favor, I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on health care reform.
JEFFREY BROWN: The Republican ideas added to the president’s plan include encouraging the use of health savings accounts, sending out undercover inspectors to watch for fraud and waste, and doing more to rein in medical malpractice claims.
Still, the president made clear he will urge Democrats to push the bill through by themselves, if necessary. And he challenged Republicans.
BARACK OBAMA: Many — probably most — Republicans in Congress just have a fundamental disagreement over whether we should have more or less oversight of insurance companies. And if they truly believe that less regulation would lead to higher-quality, more affordable health insurance, then they should vote against the proposal I have put forward.
MAN: Without objection, so ordered.
JEFFREY BROWN: But, even before he spoke, there was little indication the president’s changes would win any Republican votes.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., minority leader: The sales pitch may be new, but the bill isn’t.
JEFFREY BROWN: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the Obama plan actually hurts any prospects for real reform.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL: But this isn’t what the American people are asking for. Americans don’t want us to tack a few good ideas onto a bill that reshapes one-sixth of the economy, vastly expands the role of government, and which raises taxes and cuts Medicare to pay for all of it.
They want us to scrap the underlying bill, scrap it altogether, and start over, with step-by-step reforms that target cost and expand access.
This whole exercise is unfortunate and completely unnecessary. It also is a disservice to the American people. The fact is, the longer the Democrats cling to their own flawed vision of reform, the longer Americans will have to wait for the reforms that they really want.
JEFFREY BROWN: If Democrats do now move forward alone, it would be through a process known as reconciliation, allowing final action in the Senate with a simple majority of 51 votes.
That became critical when Republican Scott Brown won the Senate race in Massachusetts in January and cost Democrats their 60-vote supermajority in the Senate. Republicans have already been out blasting that approach.
House Minority Leader John Boehner spoke this morning.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, house minority leader: Well, it’s was pretty clear that the — the Obama administration and my colleagues in Congress are going to continue on their march to shove this government-run health care plan down the throats of the American people.
And I — during the 20 years I have been in Congress, I have always found it pretty remarkable to watch the Congress try to pass something that the American people have already said no to.
JEFFREY BROWN: In his speech this afternoon, however, the president insisted there’s plenty of precedent for proceeding with a majority vote for health care reform.
BARACK OBAMA: Reform has already passed the House with a majority. It has already passed the Senate with a supermajority of 60 votes.
And now it deserves the same kind of up-or-down vote that was cast on welfare reform, that was cast on the Children’s Health Insurance Program, that was — that was used for COBRA health coverage for the unemployed and, by the way, for both Bush tax cuts, all of which had to pass Congress with nothing more than a simple majority.
Thank you very much, everybody.
BARACK OBAMA: Let’s get it done.
JEFFREY BROWN: The president plans to travel to Pennsylvania and Missouri next week to press his case for action. And Democrats say they hope to have a final bill by the end of the month.