Obama Tells Congress to ‘Finish Its Work’ on Health Reform

BY Lea Winerman  March 3, 2010 at 5:05 PM EDT

Updated 4:35 p.m. EST

Washington Post reporter Ceci Conolly and political analyst Norman Ornstein will be on the NewsHour tonight, providing analysis and commentary on the president’s speech and the path forward for health care reform. Read some of Ornstein’s analysis in the Q&A below, and watch the show tonight for more.

Explain what the process will be from here on out for the health care reform bill?

Basically, [Democratic leaders] have to get the House to act first on the Senate bill. And that’s a tough task, because to some degree the House Democrats are being told by the Senate, “trust us.”

The House doesn’t like the Senate bill — they need it amended. So they have to take at least a little leap of faith that whatever package is put together to amend it will be accepted by the Senate.

How big a problem is trust between the House and Senate?

It’s big [...] This year, the House passed its health reform bill early, then it sat there in the Senate. The House passed a climate bill early, it’s been puttering along in the Senate.

So the House Democrats don’t like the Senate or the Senate Democrats. And once they vote for the Senate bill, then it has passed both houses and it’s law. So there’s a little fear that this could be bait and switch.

What House Democrats wanted was to have the Senate pass the reconciliation bill first. But the problem is that you’d be reconciling something that hasn’t been adopted. It’s perfectly legitimate to reconcile a bill that’s still in the process of going through — but not till it’s passed both houses. So they’ve got to make this little leap of faith here.

What about the abortion issue? How big a problem could that be? Could it sink the bill?

In theory it could, because you had a sizeable number of pro-life Democrats in the House who voted for the bill because they’d worked out language on abortion that they approved of. And you’ll lose some of them. Now it’s not entirely clear how many of these pro-life Democrats made that their condition for voting for the bill. But their leader, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., has said there are 10 to 15 members ready to vote no if they don’t change the language in the Senate bill.

I’ve talked to Democrats in leadership who say that’s an exaggerated number. But if he’s right, Speaker Pelosi has a sizeable task winning over a group of others who voted against the bill before. Now she has some opportunities among some blue dogs who I think are increasingly coming to understand the consequences for themselves and for the party if they get this far and then fail to pass a bill.

*Overall, what are the Democrats’ prospects for getting this passed? Did the speech today smooth the way? *

I think the speech today will help, but what will help more is an active involvement by the president in rounding up votes and making sure it works.

The one part of speech that will raise questions in Congress is where he said “it’s time for Congress to do its work.” Up to now, the president has not been actively involved in the horse trading. And that was appropriate — it was the best way to get the different bills through the House and Senate.

But now, making sure you have the votes is going to require active, tough-minded involvement by the president.

[...] It’s going to be tough hand-to-hand combat getting those votes in the House. I think it’s going to happen, though, because the consequences for Democrats of not getting a bill are unthinkable. But it’s going to require a lot of effort and time and political capital laid out.

Updated 2:31 p.m. EST

President Obama asked congressional leaders to schedule an up-or-down vote on health care reform, in a speech Wednesday meant to propel the bill through its final legislative hurdles.

“Everything there is to say about health care has been said, and just about everybody has said it. So now is the time to make a decision,” the president said, noting that the debate began a full year ago.

He outlined what he called the three major changes in his proposal: stricter regulations on insurance companies, giving the uninsured and small businesses a choice of private health insurance plans through the new exchange marketplace, and providing subsidies for those who can’t afford insurance on their own.

The president also reiterated his call for Congress to schedule an up-or-down vote on health care reform in the next few weeks. He referenced other legislation that has passed via reconciliation — including COBRA benefits for the unemployed and both of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts — though he did not mention reconciliation by name.

“I ask Congress to finish its work, and I look forward to signing this reform into law,” he said.

Updated 1:30 p.m. EST

President Obama’s latest speech on health care reform is set to begin at 1:45 p.m. EST.

The president will lay out his vision for how to move forward on health care reform. Excerpts are available here.

“This is where we’ve ended up. It’s an approach that has been debated and changed and I believe improved over the last year,” President Obama planned to say, according to the early excerpts.

He’s expected to offer specific ideas for incorporating Republican proposals into the legislation, following a letter on that topic he sent to congressional leaders yesterday. He’s also expected to call for an up-or-down vote on reform, tacitly endorsing the use of reconciliation if Republicans won’t cooperate in passing the bill.

Check back after the speech for an update, the full video of the president’s statement, and analysis from NewsHour regular and Congress watcher Norman Ornstein. And watch the NewsHour tonight for more reaction and analysis.