WASHINGTON – On the cusp of a key legislative push, President Barack Obama on Monday filled the Rose Garden with doctors supportive of his health care overhaul, saying “nobody has more credibility with the American people on this issue than you do.”
Obama’s White House event gave him another chance to frame the debate on his terms as his top domestic priority enters its most critical phase with legislation moving toward floor debates in the Senate and the House.
The Senate Finance Committee is expected to clear its long-debated, intensely scrutinized bill this week. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said a vote originally expected by today has been pushed back, because the Congressional Budget Office is still crunching cost and coverage numbers.
The latest version of the Finance bill will cover fewer people, after senators last week softened penalties for not carrying health insurance. Stabenow said she expects it will cover 92 percent or 93 percent of Americans, down from about 95 percent in earlier versions. The penalties were reduced because there’s not enough money in the $900 billion, 10-year bill to provide subsidies for all middle-class households.
White House budget director Peter Orszag acknowledged the tension between keeping down costs and the goal of providing coverage for all.
“There’s no doubt there’s a trade-off,” he said Monday.
After the Finance Committee finishes its work, Senate Democratic leaders will meld it with a more liberal-leaning version passed by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The House also must combine differing versions of its own bills before opening floor debate.
Republican opposition to the Democratic-crafted bills has been almost unanimous thus far in Congress, but a few former GOP officials have had kinder things to say about them.
Tommy Thompson, a 2008 presidential candidate who headed the Health and Human Services Department under President George W. Bush, said Monday the Finance Committee bill “is another important step toward achieving the goal of health care reform this year.”
Bill Frist, a heart surgeon and former Senate Republican leader, told Time magazine he would vote for the Finance bill if he were still in Congress. Both Frist and Thompson said the bill could be improved by amendments, however.
As a visual plug for Obama’s efforts, the White House arranged Monday for the president to have some 150 doctors representing all 50 states arrayed in the sun-splashed lawn area just outside the West Wing.
“When you cut through all the noise and all the distractions that are out there, I think what’s most telling is that some of the people who are most supportive of reform are the very medical professionals who know the health care system best,” Obama said.