Erica Werner and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Washington — A defiant President Barack Obama sought Monday to revive his faltering plan to overhaul health care, delivering a full-throated promise to get comprehensive legislation and summoning lawmakers crucial to his effort to the White House.
“Don’t bet against us. We are going to make this thing happen,” Obama said at a news conference intended to focus on his nominee for surgeon general, Dr. Regina Benjamin.
The appearance in the Rose Garden was the president’s first public outing since his weeklong overseas trip — and the first after an up-and-down week in Congress. Consensus on his top domestic priority has proven elusive and the Democratic leadership’s ambitious timetable for floor votes this summer has slipped.
While the president was out of the country sizing up foreign leaders, rank-and-file lawmakers took a look at the emerging details of health care legislation and many decided they didn’t like what they saw. They called a time out. In the House, conservative Democrats rebelled over costs. In the Senate, the Democratic leadership pulled the plug on a controversial financing scheme that a moderate Democrat worked out with Republican counterparts.
Despite Obama’s determination, there’s no guarantee he’ll succeed in the effort to get all Americans covered and try to better manage costs. With lawmakers concerned about costs above all else, Congress may decide to expand coverage slowly, phasing it in over a number of years.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., were to meet with Obama at the White House on Monday afternoon, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. Joining the leaders at the session were Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.
Baucus and Rangel are in charge of the crucial job of coming up with how to pay for a comprehensive health care overhaul that would cost at least $1 trillion during a 10-year span, mostly for subsidies to help cover nearly 50 million uninsured Americans. But the two Democrats are taking very different routes. Rangel is shaping a bill that Democrats can support. Baucus is striving for a bipartisan compromise, which would have better chance of winning broad support, and which Obama says he wants.
Obama lost no time signaling that he intends to be in the forefront of the action.
“I just want to put everybody on notice, because there was a lot of chatter during the week that I was gone,” the president said. “Inaction is not an option.”
He also ruled out any tax increase affecting the middle class, complicating lawmakers’ efforts to pay for overhaul.
“During the campaign I promised health care reform that would control costs, expand coverage and ensure choice and I promised that Americans making $250,000 a year or less would not pay more in taxes. These are promises that we’re keeping as reform moves forward,” Obama said.
House Democrats may be able to muscle a bill through the floor by August.
“We will be on schedule,” Pelosi told reporters even though planned release of a bill — originally set for last Friday — was delayed until Tuesday.
In the Senate, it’s going to take longer.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama would urge lawmakers to forgo part of their August recess to continue working on health care legislation.
AP Writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.