WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Monday spiraling healthcare costs were battering American families as he sought to bolster wavering public support for plans to revamp the $2 trillion U.S. healthcare industry.
Obama said that now was the time for Congress to act, but indicated he realized that the process of writing healthcare reform legislation might “spill over” beyond his August deadline, when Congress recesses for a summer break.
The chairman of the Republican National Committee condemned the White House plan, which would establish a new government-run health insurance option, as “a reckless experiment.”
A bipartisan group of six senators, including two moderate Republicans who have been working to reach a compromise on the bill, wrote to Senate Democratic and Republican leaders to ask for more time to come up with a plan both parties could support.
“There is much heavy lifting ahead,” they wrote, saying the overhaul plan should neither increase the national debt nor hurt those who already have health insurance.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted last week and published on Monday found approval of Obama’s handling of the issue fell to 49 percent from 57 percent in April, and disapproval rose to 44 percent from 29 percent.
The poll followed estimates released in the last week that suggested the reforms, which are now before Congress and are Obama’s top domestic priority, would fail to create the long-term savings he wants and cost more than originally estimated.
“We’ve talked this problem to death year after year but unless we act and act now, none of this will change,” Obama said after a healthcare round-table at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.
In an interview with the PBS television network, Obama was pressed on whether he was backing off his goal of having both the House and Senate pass their versions of a healthcare overhaul bill before they broke for the August recess.
Obama stood firm, but made clear he would accept a brief delay.
“Now, if there are no deadlines, nothing gets done in this town,” Obama said on the PBS program “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. “If somebody comes to me and says, it’s basically done; it’s going to spill over by a few days or a week — you know, that’s different.”
RNC chairman Michael Steele said the president’s plan, which is meant to extend healthcare to some 46 million uninsured, amounted to socialism.
“The president is rushing this experiment through Congress so fast, so soon, that we haven’t had a moment to think if it would work — or worse, to think about the consequences to our nation, our economy and our families’ economic future if it doesn’t,” Steele said at the National Press Club.
Obama has been using television interviews and the Internet to try to build momentum for congressional passage of a plan in two to three weeks. The issue is expected to feature in a news conference the president has scheduled on Wednesday evening.
White House adviser Melody Barnes said the administration understood that action this month by congressional panels was only one step. “At the end of the day we’re going to see what’s on the table. ... He wants to make sure this is a good bill that solves our economic problems and doesn’t add to it,” she told Reuters Television.
Obama’s administration has struggled to overcome concerns among fiscally conservative Democrats that already burdened federal and state governments could not afford to expand healthcare without more borrowing or large tax hikes.
Last week, congressional budget analysts said the plan would add $239 billion to the deficit over 10 years, casting doubt on Obama’s pledge to keep the plan within the budget.
Obama is running out of time to get the enabling legislation passed this year and a delay to 2010, a congressional election year, could make it harder to win a final deal.
Unlike President Bill Clinton’s failed attempt to overhaul healthcare in the 1990s, the effort has important supporters.
The American Medical Association announced its backing last week; pharmaceutical companies joined hands with Families USA, the chief lobbying group for the insured; and on Monday the leading health insurance trade group said it would take to television and radio to seek a bipartisan plan.
The bills working their way through Congress would set up a government-run health insurance plan to compete with private insurers, provide coverage to many of the 46 million uninsured and try to stem runaway medical costs.
But a decision on how to pay for it was some way off.
Additional reporting by Donna Smith and David Alexander; Editing by Simon Denyer, David Storey and Eric Walsh