WASHINGTON President Barack Obama called on Republicans on Saturday to vote for a delay in cutting government Medicare insurance payments to doctors, taking aim at the opposition party in a renewed election-year push for his new healthcare law.
The Senate is due to vote within days on whether to follow the House of Representatives and delay a cut in Medicare payments to doctors. Like much else related to healthcare, the vote is becoming a proxy for Republican anger over the sweeping health overhaul passed in March despite their fierce resistance.
"This year, a majority of Congress is willing to prevent a pay cut of 21 percent -- a pay cut that would undoubtedly force some doctors to stop seeing Medicare patients altogether," Obama said in his weekly radio address. Medicare is the government health program for the elderly.
"But this time, some Senate Republicans may even block a vote on this issue. After years of voting to defer these cuts, the other party is now willing to walk away from the needs of our doctors and our seniors," Obama said.
A spokesman for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell stressed that a vote was imminent and said Republicans backed an alternative proposal, "that reduces the deficit rather than adding to it as the bill endorsed by the president would do."
With Obama's schedule largely dominated since April by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, administration officials had been doing little publicly to counteract opposition to the overhaul of the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare industry.
Many Republicans have been focusing on healthcare in campaigning for November elections that could cut into the Democratic majorities in the U.S. Congress.
Republicans say the plan is too expensive at a time of massive federal budget deficits, and consider it an unwarranted government intrusion into a private industry and the relationship of doctors with their patients.
John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, criticized Democrats' "spending spree" in his party's weekly address.
"Instead of bringing fiscal sanity to Washington like he promised, President Obama has spent taxpayer dollars with reckless abandon, refusing to make tough choices and pushing the burden on to future generations," Boehner said.
"No price tag has been too high for Washington Democrats, and now we're all paying the price."
Obama, who argues his healthcare reform will save the country money over time, launched a renewed publicity push this week for the law, his biggest legislative achievement. The president held a nationally televised question and answer session with retirees on Tuesday to tout its benefits.
Democrats launched television advertisements on Thursday to promote the overhaul and highlight Republican vows to repeal it as the first $250 rebates were mailed to older Americans to help plug gaps in their Medicare prescription drug coverage.
Polls show public opinion remains mixed on the law. While majorities of Americans still oppose it, some polls show attitudes have improved and most say they do not favor the quick repeal pushed by Republicans.
Democrats are banking that as more provisions take effect and benefits are felt by the public, the measure will become more popular and Republican calls to repeal it will backfire.
Obama said the law would address the larger problem of mounting government healthcare spending by controlling costs and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.
"I'm absolutely willing to take the difficult steps necessary to lower the cost of Medicare and put our budget on a more fiscally sustainable path," he said.
(Editing by Peter Cooney and Eric Beech)