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Obama Seizes on Momentum From Wednesday’s Health Care Speech

September 10, 2009 at 6:02 PM EDT
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Building on momentum from Wednesday's address to Congress, President Obama pressed ahead with health care agenda. Kwame Holman reports.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama pressed ahead today for a new consensus on health care reform. He moved to build on last night’s address to Congress, which drew reaction across the board, and it also drew one big apology.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president picked up where he left off last night, renewing his call for urgent action on health care reform. He spoke first to a nurses’ group at the White House.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We don’t need more partisan distractions. If there are real concerns about any aspect of my plan, then let’s address them. If there are real differences, let’s resolve them. But we have talked this issue to death, year after year, decade after decade, and the time for talk is winding down. The time for bickering has passed.

KWAME HOLMAN: To bolster his case, the president cited new data on rising poverty in the recession. The Census Bureau reported the number of those without health insurance topped 46 million last year; that was up more than half a million, as people lost health coverage along with their jobs.

The plan Mr. Obama outlined last night aimed to drive down those numbers at a cost of $900 billion over 10 years. Among other things, it would mandate that all Americans carry health insurance and pay for it, in part, by taxing insurance companies on the most expensive plans.

The Obama plan also creates an insurance exchange where individuals and small businesses shop for coverage. And it bans the practice of denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

The president also touted a public option in the plan, but did not insist on it. In response, the head of the main insurance industry group, Karen Ignagni, said again the industry supports reform, but not the public option.

KAREN IGNAGNI, America’s Health Insurance Plans: I think one of the most important points about the government-run program is you have leading provider, hospital systems stepping up and saying, “We may go bankrupt under these proposals.” So I don’t think that’s a direction that the country can build on if we’re going to create more affordability, more health security.

AMA supports Obama's push

KWAME HOLMAN: The American Medical Association already has given its support to the president's reform drive. Today, last year's head of the AMA, Dr. Nancy Nielsen, welcomed the president's offer to have the secretary of health and human services work on curbing medical malpractice lawsuits.

DR. NANCY NIELSEN: Well, it's further than any other president has gone, and so we'll take that. He directed her to institute pilots. I guess that was discussed under the Bush administration but never implemented. We are enthusiastic to see how those pilots work out and participate in them, and we thank the administration for that.

KWAME HOLMAN: Attention to the president's plan and the debate over it were diverted somewhat today by some of the reaction last night during his address to Congress. A Republican from South Carolina created a furor when he heckled Mr. Obama.

Congressman Joe Wilson shouted out, "You lie!" when the president said his plan would not include insuring illegal immigrants.

BARACK OBAMA: The reforms -- the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.

REP. JOE WILSON, R-Calif.: You lie!

KWAME HOLMAN: This morning, Wilson went before reporters staked out at his office and apologized.

REP. JOE WILSON: Well, I last night heard from the leadership, that they wanted me to contact the White House and state that my statements were inappropriate. I did.

I'm very grateful that the White House, in talking with them, they indicated that they appreciated the call and that we needed to have a civil discussion about the health care issues. And I certainly agree with them.

I will tell you this, that it was spontaneous. It was when he stated, as he did, about not coverage illegal aliens, when I knew we'd had those two amendments.

KWAME HOLMAN: During remarks to the press after a meeting with his cabinet, President Obama said he accepted Wilson's apology.

BARACK OBAMA: We all make mistakes. He apologized quickly and without equivocation, and I'm appreciative of that. I do think that, as I said last night, we have to get to the point where we can have a conversation about big, important issues that matter to the American people without vitriol, without name-calling, without the assumption of the worst in other people's motives. We are all Americans; we all want to do best for our country.

Democrats and Republicans react

KWAME HOLMAN: Some House Democrats called for sanctioning Wilson, but the debate soon turned back to health care reform. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hailed the president's address and promised progress.

REP. NANCY PELOSI, D-Calif., Speaker of the House: Last night, President Obama delivered what I believe to be one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in the Congress of the United States.

In terms of our timetable on health care, when we are ready, we will take the bill to the floor. We are waiting for the Senate Finance Committee, so it's very good news that they will be marking up a bill soon, that we will see a bill, I think, next Tuesday, so members have an idea of what's in that bill. But I'm confident the president will sign a bill this year.

KWAME HOLMAN: On the other side of the aisle, most Republicans had little good to say about Mr. Obama's speech. House Minority Leader John Boehner.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER, R-Ohio, House Minority Leader: We appreciated having the president here last night. Unfortunately, what the American people got wasn't a new health care plan; it was just another lecture. He had a chance to really put the government-run plan to bed, but, unfortunately, he didn't do it.

He also repeated many of the same talking points that simply don't reflect what is in H.R. 3200, the Democrat House bill. First, he said he wouldn't sign a bill that would add one dime to the deficit. And, clearly, H.R. 3200 adds about $240 billion to the deficit in the first 10 years.

KWAME HOLMAN: Despite that opposition, White House officials talked hopefully today. Vice President Joe Biden said the president aimed to have a bill by Thanksgiving.

And Mr. Obama began courting the votes he needs in Congress, starting with a group of moderate Democrats this afternoon.

The president also is scheduled to continue his push for public support with a rally over the weekend in Minnesota and another speech on Tuesday.

JIM LEHRER: We'll have more reaction to last night's speech later in the program tonight.