President Barack Obama's address Wednesday night to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on the issue of health care reform is drawing reaction from U.S. lawmakers. The president used strong language to clarify what reform proposals would do, pledged to continue seeking bipartisan support, but said the time for playing politics with health care has ended.
President Obama said the current system has led the country to a breaking point, imposing hardships on middle-class Americans who struggle to pay for health care, who are unable to obtain it.
Saying the United States is the only advanced democracy and only wealthy nation that allows such hardships for millions of its people, the president said the time has come to put politics aside and solve the problem.
"The time for bickering is over," President Obama said. "The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care."
The president said reform proposals which he estimates would cost $900 billion over 10 years, would provide security and stability to the insured, and make it possible for tens of millions of Americans who are not to get affordable insurance through a proposed exchange system in which private companies would compete.
He also repeated pledges that health care reform can be achieved without adding to the federal deficit, saying savings will be achieved by eliminating hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and abuse.
Democrats trying to steer reform through Congress against a nearly solid wall of Republican opposition said the president delivered a clear vision and specifics, and a strong message of leadership.
While praising the president's eloquence, Republicans asserted that he failed to deliver specifics, and re-stated criticisms that Democratic proposals would impose new tax burdens on Americans and small businesses and add to deficit spending.
Republican Charles Boustany, who is also a physician, delivered the formal Republican response.
"It is clear. The American people want health care reform, but they want their elected leaders to get it right," Boustany said. "Most Americans wanted to hear [the] president tell Speaker Pelosi, [Senate] Majority Leader Reid, and the rest of the Congress that it is time to start over on a common sense, bipartisan plan focused on lowering the cost of health care while improving quality."
Virginia Republican Eric Cantor asserted that the president failed to offer sufficient specifics or offer reform proposals that Americans are comfortable with.
President Obama said a government-run insurance option as an alternative to private insurers is one part of Democrat's health care proposal, adding he is willing to address legitimate concerns Republicans have.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called a strong public option "essential" for any bill to pass in the House. A 218 vote majority would be required but Democrats have faced concerns from moderates and conservatives within their own party.
A statement from fiscally-conservative Democrats who forced changes in House legislation said they are committed to meaningful reform, but reiterated concern that legislation not add to the federal deficit and control health costs in the long-term.
So far, three House committees have approved versions of health care reform, which would be melded together into a single bill. One Senate committee has done so.
Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus announced plans Wednesday to begin moving another version toward a vote in that panel, saying he will go forward with or without Republican support.
"My door is open but irrespective of whether or not any Republicans [join in a bipartisan effort], and I do think there will be [some], I am going to move forward anyway," he said.
Addressing opposition, President Obama referred to what he called scare tactics rather than honest debate, and wild claims by Republicans that reform plans would lead to a government takeover of health care.
President Obama said he will continue to seek common ground and listen to serious proposals, but made clear he will have little patience for continuing distortions.
"Know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than to approve it," the president said. "I won't stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now."
At the same time, the president said that rather than a radical shift that would disrupt health care Americans now have, he favors building on what works and fixing what doesn't.
Among those invited by the president to hear the speech in person were a number of Americans who the White House said would benefit from Democratic-sponsored reform legislation, including persons struggling to pay medical bills or denied coverage under the current insurance system.
Also present was Vicki Kennedy, the wife of the late Senator Edward Kennedy who fought for health care reform for decades before he passed away from brain cancer in August.
President Obama said Senator Kennedy considered health care reform a moral issue, and suggested that his concern and regard for the plight of others should spur bipartisan cooperation in finally achieving reform.