WASHINGTON — Declaring that the “time for bickering is over,” President Obama sought to revive the prospects for the passage of far-reaching health-care reform by seizing ownership last night of an initiative he has largely left in lawmakers' hands.
In a televised address to a joint session of Congress, Mr. Obama prodded legislators to quickly enact comprehensive measures that would impose strict new insurance protections, expand government health programs for the working poor, and begin pilot projects aimed at reducing medical malpractice lawsuits.
“The time for games has passed,” the President said of his signature domestic policy issue. “Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care.”
“I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last,” he added.
Casting himself squarely in the political center with direct appeals to the middle class, Mr.
Obama laid out his case for a 10-year, $900 billion plan that would build on the current employer-based health system with new requirements on individuals and businesses to contribute to the costs of coverage. And on the controversial issue of a new government-run insurance option, he maintained his flexibility.
“If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen,” he said. “My door is always open.”
After being urged by allies in recent weeks to be more assertive, Mr. Obama condemned what he called the “partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government.”
Public support for comprehensive health-care reform has dwindled over the past month as vocal opponents dominated the headlines with talk of socialized medicine and accusations that Mr. Obama was embarking on a “risky experiment” with the nation's medical care.
“Out of this blizzard of charges and counter-charges, confusion has reigned,” he said.
“I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it,” he said. “I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution.”
After months of leaving the bill-writing to Congress, Mr. Obama for the first time spoke of “my plan” to meet the twin goals of controlling medical costs and providing affordable care to every American.
At the same time, he declined to put an end to bitter intraparty divisions over the question of a public insurance option for individuals and small businesses that have difficulty buying coverage in the private market.
While repeating his belief that the approach provides needed competition for private companies, he pleaded with his “progressive friends” to remain open to other ideas that could accomplish the same goals.
“Its impact shouldn't be exaggerated — by the left, the right, or the media. It is only one part of my plan, and should not be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles,” he said.
“I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice.”
With the nation in the midst of a recession and two wars, many had counseled Mr. Obama to delay the battle over health care, an issue that bedeviled so many of his predecessors. But he argued that revamping the nation's $2.3 trillion system is central to long-term economic solvency.
Mr. Obama used the broad reach of the prime-time address to fight back against what he called “bogus claims,” calling the talk of “death panels” “laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.” He also rejected claims that his proposals would increase federal funding for abortion or provide coverage to illegal immigrants.
Mr. Obama was professorial through much of the speech, giving little evidence of the passion that his aides say drives him on the issue. He was interrupted repeatedly by applause in a chamber dominated by members of his own party.
Although he at times reached across the partisan divide — at one point embracing an idea put forth by his presidential rival, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) — Mr. Obama said he will not tolerate the strategy of “death by delay” articulated by some GOP strategists.
Despite disagreements among lawmakers, Mr. Obama drew a standing ovation when he recounted stories of Americans whose coverage was denied or delayed by insurers with catastrophic results.
“That is heartbreaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.”
Mr. Obama was heckled by a Republican lawmaker at one point during his speech.
South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” after Mr. Obama had talked about illegal immigrants.
Mr. Wilson's outburst caused Mr. Obama to pause briefly before he went on with his speech. In the visitors' gallery, First Lady Michelle Obama shook her head.
Mr. Wilson apologized last night for his outburst.
In one gesture to Republicans, Mr. Obama said his administration would authorize test programs in some states to check the impact of medical malpractice changes on health insurance costs.
Responding on behalf of Republicans, Rep. Charles Boustany (R., La.) said the country wants Mr. Obama to instruct Democratic congressional leaders that “it's time to start over on a common-sense, bipartisan plan focused on lowering the cost of health care while improving quality.”
“Replacing your family's current health care with government-run health care is not the answer,” said Mr. Boustany, a heart surgeon.
Hours before the address, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) announced that he intends to push forward on a measure next week, regardless of whether he has GOP support.
“We must get this bill done by the end of the year,” he said after a morning session with the panel's bipartisan “Gang of Six.”
Mr. Obama said he now supports a requirement that all Americans carry insurance, a provision included in every reform bill. He opposed the so-called individual mandate during his presidential campaign last year, but has said this year that it is necessary to make insurance reform work.