President Obama is trying to close the deal on health-care reform by casting members of Congress who might vote against his plan as lacking courage and button-holing lawmakers aboard Air Force One — and by pulling on America’s heartstrings.
In Cleveland on Monday, Obama centered his speech around a fiery section that said the current health-care system does not reflect “the America I believe in.”
“This debate is about far more than the politics. It comes down to what kind of country we want to be,” Obama said. “It’s about the millions of lives that would be touched and, in some cases, saved by making health insurance more secure and more affordable.”
As for wavering lawmakers in Washington who fear a vote for his plan will mean an end to their careers, Obama said the country doesn’t want politicians “reading the polls.”
“We need courage,” Obama said.
Obama, in his speech, also described a conversation on Air Force One en route to Cleveland with Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a liberal Democrat who represents Cleveland and has been to date a firm no vote on the president’s plan because it does not include a government-run “public option.”
When Kucinich disembarked from Air Force One, he was asked by a reporter about his conversation with the president. He only smiled, and declined to say how he will vote.
Nonetheless, another House Democrat who has indicated he may switch from a no vote to a yes vote, Rep. John Boccieri, of Ohio, skipped the president’s event.
Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, headlined a fundraiser in Cincinnati for another House Democrat who has said he might vote against the health care bill, Rep. Steve Driehaus.
On Capitol Hill, Democrats began the process of moving the health care bill’s “reconciliation” fix to the House floor, as the House Budget Committee approved the bill 21-to-16, with two Democrats voting with Republicans against it.
Rep. Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican committee member from Wisconsin, calling the hearing a “charade,” citing the fact that the House Rules Committee is expected to hold a hearing later this week where its members will insert different language into the bill.
“The real legislation will get written under the cover of the rules committee,” Ryan said. “We are right here creating a legislative Trojan horse, in which a handful of people, hidden from public view, will reshape how all Americans receive and pay for their health care. And then it will be rushed to the floor.”
Ryan accused Democrats of “paternalism … [and] condescension to the American people.”
One of the two Democrats who voted against it, Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida, voted against the health care bill in November but indicated in the past that he might be open to voting for it this time. His committee vote could either be an indication that he will vote against it again or a move to say that he voted against it first before being pressured to vote for final passage.
Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt, of South Carolina, has not said whether he will vote for or against the final bill — he voted for it in November — but voted for the bill to go forward.
Obama, during his speech in Cleveland, talked about cost containment and argued that his plan will reduce the deficit and the cost of health care. Polls have consistently shown the public is skeptical of the claim that the government can extend coverage to 30 million more Americans and reduce costs at the same time.
So the president turned to highlighting what he Monday called “the human dimensions of this problem.” His argument is that moral justice dictates that those without insurance receive it.
He talked at length about Natoma Canfield, a 50-year-old Ohio cancer patient who the president said is a case study for how insurance companies treat people unfairly and unjustly.
Canfield’s rates, Obama said, have been repeatedly raised because of her past bout with cancer.
“The insurance company is getting $10,000, paying out $900,” Obama said.
Canfield eventually dropped her insurance because the costs had become too high, Obama said, and then was diagnosed last week with leukemia.
“I’m here because of Natoma,” Obama said. “That’s why we need health insurance right now.”
Health insurers argue that the percentage of the premiums they take in which go toward paying salaries and other administrative costs has remained constant at between 86 and 88 percent.
In 2008, insurance companies took in $783 billion and paid $691 billion out to health-care providers, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The president has shown signs recently of a move toward emphasizing the charitable side of health-care reform. He said the 30 million Americans without insurance are the “core problem” in the health-care debate, at his summit with members of Congress in February.
Obama has also ramped up his rhetoric against the insurance companies of late.
On Monday, one of his top advisers, Valerie Jarrett, said in a speech to the U.S. League of Cities that the president’s plan would protect Americans from “atrocities” being inflicted right now by insurance companies.
“We need to make sure that in this country everybody has the health care that they deserve and that we provide rules of the road to the insurance companies that will preclude families from facing the atrocities that we see, that you see, every day,” Jarrett said.
Obama’s comments Monday, however, reflected a new level of intensity in his focus on the suffering of every day Americans, as he urged those who already have insurance to not just think of themselves but to put themselves in the place of those without insurance.
“What we have to understand is that what’s happened to Natoma, there but for the grace of God go any one of us,” Obama said.
It is a return, in some ways, to the argument Obama made when he first launched his reform effort. The White House moved away from an emphasis on expanding coverage midway through last year when they concluded that the argument was not persuading Americans who already had insurance.
Republicans argued that their health care reform — which would create high-risk pools in every state that does not have one — would do more for Natoma right away than Obama’s plan, in which the most significant benefits don’t kick in until 2014.
The GOP also found fault with Obama for not focusing more on controlling health-care costs, which are a major component driving the U.S. toward a looming fiscal crisis.
“The president seems more focused on getting anything passed, warts and all, than working together on incremental health-care reforms to strengthen the system we have by lowering health-care costs, improving access to care and removing unfair practices from the system,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican.
“At a time when our country is already so deep in debt that it may never climb out, unfortunately for our children and grandchildren, the president, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Leader Harry Reid continue to push for this trillion dollar health-care overhaul even though they have no idea how they are going to pay for it,” Dayspring said.