WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House worked on Thursday to tamp down an insurrection from some of President Barack Obama’s liberal backers who feel he has been too willing to compromise away their priorities on a healthcare overhaul.
The frictions reflect the tortured state of negotiations over Obama’s top domestic legislative priority as the White House and Democratic leadership in the U.S. Congress seek to piece together enough supporters to approve a healthcare plan that Republicans oppose.
Leading the grousing from the left has been Howard Dean, a former Democratic National Committee chairman who ran unsuccessfully for his party’s presidential nomination in 2004.
Dean, a medical doctor and former governor of Vermont, in recent days has said a Senate healthcare bill that Obama supports and which is lurching toward a possible vote in coming days should be killed.
Dean and others on the left argue that the Senate legislation does not permit competition with medical insurance companies, would expand private insurers’ grip on healthcare and does not really amount to reform.
His complaint came because Senate leaders have ditched a plan for a government-run insurance plan and a measure that would allow people under 65 to buy into the Medicare government insurance plan for the elderly.
“If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current healthcare bill,” Dean wrote in a Washington Post opinion article on Thursday, his latest broadside on the matter.
Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program on Thursday to fire back at Dean, saying his argument is “predicated on a bunch of erroneous conclusions” and that the legislation does meet most Democratic goals.
Axelrod found himself challenged on the program by Ed Schultz, a liberal anchor on MSNBC’s evening programing.
“They key is, people in this country right now don’t believe that the White House has stood up to the insurance industry,” Schultz said.
Obama himself took up the argument in an ABC News interview on Wednesday, saying the legislation will reduce the budget deficit over the long run, will help reduce insurance premiums for families, will force companies not to deny coverage to individuals due to pre-existing health conditions, and permit 30 million uninsured to get coverage.
“There’s got to be a sense sometimes that we’re willing to rise above our particular interests, our particular ideas in order to get things done,” Obama said.
Republicans who are trying to defeat the bill found themselves happy to have Dean’s help.
“If you live long enough all things can happen,” Republican Senator John McCain said with a smile. “I now find myself in complete agreement with Dr. Howard Dean, who says that we should stop this bill in its tracks, we should go back to the beginning and have an overall bipartisan agreement. Dr. Dean, I am with you.”
Bickering in the healthcare debate is taking its toll. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll published on Thursday found Americans turning against an overhaul. It said 44 percent said it is better to pass no plan at all, compared with 41 percent who want passage.
Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, said at this stage it is critical for Obama to emerge with a victory on healthcare because he has spent so much time on it this year.
“If Dean isn’t costing him the critical votes in Congress, battling Dean could be a plus because it could position Obama’s healthcare program more in the center. Right now it’s seen as too big, too costly, too big-taxing,” Sabato said.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Caren Bohan, editing by Jackie Frank