Public Passions Are Rising on Health Care Overhaul
"I wouldn't be surprised if that's the harbinger of things to come," Pennsylvania's Sen. Arlen Specter said a day after facing the rowdy crowd in Philadelphia. A House member who was surrounded by protesters shouting "Just say no!" to Democrats' health plans in Texas over the weekend accused Republicans of organizing the opposition.
"This mob ... did not come just to be heard, but to deny others the right to be heard. And this appears to be part of a coordinated, nationwide effort," Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said in a statement. "What could be more appropriate for the 'party of no' than having its stalwarts drowning out the voices of their neighbors by screaming 'Just say no!'"
With Congress' month-long recess looming, lawmakers are encountering growing public doubts about President Barack Obama's push to remake the system for providing medical care, evident in polls that find confidence in the president's handling of the issue has fallen since January.
The White House is determined to frame the debate on its terms this month and counter fears about government-run insurance plans, a growing federal deficit, the impact on small businesses, abortion and end-of-life provisions -- all issues that have dominated the health care debate. Political parties and special interest groups will add to the cacophony by spending millions of dollars on competing ads.
For lawmakers such as Specter and Doggett, the weekend events captured the public mood and the obstacles for the Obama administration.
At Specter's forum Sunday in Philadelphia, some chanted Obama's "Yes we can" campaign slogan, while others carried signs that said, "Tell Washington no."
Specter and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius faced an antagonistic, standing-room-only crowd at the National Constitution Center. Specter said he thought political organizations orchestrated some of the commotion, but individuals with serious concerns -- some in dire medical conditions -- were there as well.
"I do think there's a big concern in America," Specter said in an interview Monday. "We heard it yesterday about the growing deficit and national debt."
Specter is a recent Republican-turned-Democrat who indicated earlier this year that he's open to a government health insurance plan that would compete with private insurers, an idea backed by Obama and many Democrats.
Four of five congressional committees have approved versions of health care bills, but lawmakers fell short of Obama's deadline for the House and Senate to vote on bills before their August recess. That sets up a September showdown on the legislation and all sides have moved into high gear.
The House has begun its recess, with the Senate to follow on Friday, as lawmakers continue to work on bipartisan legislation.
Frustrated with the pace of those talks, Democratic leaders promised to push a sweeping health care bill through the Senate whether they get Republican support or not.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the third-ranking Senate Democrat, raised the prospect of the leadership crafting a bill to Democratic specifications and using a rare legislative procedure to expedite it.
"We will have contingencies in place," Schumer told reporters on a conference call. "These plans will likely be considered as a last resort, but they are on the table." He would not elaborate.
After numerous delays, three Democrats and three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee are facing a Sept. 15 deadline to wrap up secretive talks and come up with a plan.
"If we cannot produce a bipartisan solution by then, you have to wonder if the Republicans will ever to be willing to agree to anything," Schumer said.
However, one of the negotiators -- Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming -- said Monday he did not recognize such a deadline, and another, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said: "I don't like deadlines."
After those objections were voiced, Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said that senators were looking at a target date internally but "the main thing is we got to get it right." Baucus said a draft bill would be ready by the end of this week.
Senators have plenty of action on the Senate floor this week, including a vote on Judge Sonia Sotomayor's Supreme Court nomination, but health care is still a focus. Senate Democrats are lunching at the White House Tuesday and will hear from White House adviser David Axelrod and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina at a closed-door session Thursday.
Schumer said Democratic leaders continue to look at invoking a procedural maneuver that would allow them to pass the health bill with 51 votes instead of 60. That route is viewed as a last resort, in part because it would probably limit the breadth of policy initiatives.
On the same call, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., accused Republican leaders of trying to hinder bipartisan progress to deny Obama a political victory.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., scoffed at the complaints. He noted that Schumer himself hasn't committed to supporting whatever the Finance Committee negotiators produce and that other Democrats have also criticized the plan that's taking shape.
"Seriously, how can any Democrat who doesn't support what the bipartisan group of Finance members is working on complain about there not being a bipartisan approach?" Stewart asked. "Has Sen. Schumer or anyone in the Democrat leadership offered a bipartisan bill?"
Schumer and many other liberals favor a strong new government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers, and all the plans approved so far have included that. But Republicans nearly uniformly oppose a new public plan, saying it would drive private insurers out of business, so the Finance negotiators are looking at a system of nonprofit health co-ops instead.
Schumer said negotiations on the Finance bill were continuing.
"No one's drawing any lines in the sand right now, but I feel very strongly we need a public option and that fight is continuing," he said.
Associated Press writer Erica Werner contributed to this report.