WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama gathered doctors from every U.S. state at the White House on Monday to press his case for healthcare reform in a week when the sweeping overhaul could clear a major hurdle in Congress.
The Senate Finance Committee, the last of five panels in Congress to move on healthcare legislation, aims to vote this week on Obama’s top domestic policy priority, an effort meant to cut costs, regulate insurers and expand health insurance coverage to the millions of Americans now going without.
“At this point, we’ve heard all the arguments on both sides of the aisle,” Obama told the crowd of 150 white-coated doctors who support the healthcare drive.
“We have listened to every charge and every counter-charge — from the crazy claims about death panels to misleading warnings about a government takeover of our healthcare system,” he said as he plunged back into the healthcare debate after two weeks largely devoted to diplomacy.
The Senate Finance Committee has wrapped up debate on the overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare system. But Democratic hopes that the panel could vote on the bill as early as Tuesday were dashed on Monday when Congressional Budget Office experts took longer than expected to deliver a cost estimate.
The vote still could take place later in the week.
Passage by the committee would be a major victory, but the overhaul still would have a long road ahead. The finance committee’s bill must be merged with another committee’s before going to consideration by the full Senate in mid-October.
The White House distributed a statement from Tommy Thompson, a former Republican governor and presidential candidate who was former President George W. Bush’s health secretary, endorsing the Senate Finance Committee plan.
But no Republicans in Congress currently back the proposal, and it is not clear whether it could muster the support even of all 60 Senate Democrats, which it needs to ensure passage.
Obama’s Democrats are divided on some major issues, especially on whether to include a new government-run insurance plan, often called the “public option,” which is hotly opposed by the insurance industry.
But the public option is strongly backed by liberals and some have said they would not vote for a healthcare bill without it. It is opposed by conservatives, and Baucus said he did not think the party could win 60 Senate votes for a bill including it.
The final Finance Committee plan does not include a public option. Obama has said he prefers a plan with a public option, but did not mention one at Monday’s event. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs would not say whether Obama thought a bill that included such a new government-run health insurance plan would be able to attract the crucial 60 votes.
Representative John Boehner, the House Republican leader, said the overhaul plans are too expensive, and that “thousands of doctors” have objected to it because it would cripple their ability to care for patients.
“Members of the medical community — who deal with red tape day in and day out — rightly recognize that the Democrats’ government takeover would weaken the doctor-patient relationship that is so critical to making the right health care decisions,” Boehner said.
Obama touted the support of doctors and nurses as one of the strongest arguments in favor of reform and called on the doctors to push for a plan.
If they do so, “I’m confident we are going to get health reform passed this year,” he said.
The full House of Representatives also must pass its own reform plan. A conference committee would then consolidate that and the Senate measure into a single bill, which the Senate and House both must pass before it could be sent to Obama to sign into law.
Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and John Whitesides