LARGO, Md. — Speaking bluntly to a friendly crowd of community college students on Thursday, President Obama said he will not back down from health-care reform even though Republicans are trying to “blackmail” him into making concessions.
In an impassioned speech five days before Americans will get their first chance to sign up for individual coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the President noted that GOP opposition is becoming ever stronger as the open enrollment period approaches.
“All this would be funny if it wasn’t so crazy,” Mr. Obama told a crowd of about 1,000 at Prince George’s Community College. “A lot of it is just hot air. A lot of it is politics.”
Even as he spoke, Republicans in Congress were making last-ditch efforts to undermine provisions of the signature domestic policy, saying it’s a dangerous law that impedes individual liberty and will cost jobs.
The President, meanwhile, said Republican rhetoric is sounding increasingly desperate as implementation of his signature domestic achievement gets closer.
The opposition has culminated in a threat to stop funding the government and force a debt default if Democrats insist on full implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
Thursday, House Republicans added new demands for tax reform, energy deregulation, tort reform, and more in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
Mr. Obama told the crowd at Prince George’s Community College that he will not negotiate.
“No Congress before this one has ever, ever in history been irresponsible enough to threaten an economic shutdown — to suggest America not pay its bills — just to try to blackmail a president into giving them some concessions,” Mr. Obama said during the campaign-style rally in the college gymnasium.
Earlier on the U.S. Senate floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) characterized the President as a pitchman trying to sell a skeptical public on a bad deal.
“Americans aren’t buying the spin,” he said.
“Small business owners want to know how they’re ever, ever going to comply with more than 20,000 pages of regulations. They want to know how they’re going to be able to keep their employees insured, work forces growing, businesses expanding and — far too often — their doors open once this law comes online,” Mr. McConnell said.
He was referring to portions of the act that eventually will require businesses with more than 50 employees to offer health insurance or pay penalties.
“I hope some of my Democrat friends who voted for this law will look themselves in the mirror and think — truly think — about whether protecting the President’s pride is more important than helping the American people,” Mr. McConnell said. “We can do better than this.”
“Another day, another Obamacare delay, and still the administration recklessly plows ahead with its mandate that American families and workers buy insurance through a failing program,” Sen. Lamar Alexander (R., Tenn.) said in a statement emailed to reporters. “Every shred of evidence tells us the entire law should be delayed.”
Meanwhile, in Prince George’s gymnasium, the President assured that his plan is “here to stay.”
Until now, insurance was unaffordable for tens of millions of Americans whose employers didn’t offer that benefit, Mr. Obama said. For many of them, premiums were out of reach in the individual market — if they could find coverage at all from insurers who rejected them because of pre-existing conditions, he said.
Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers must cover pre-existing conditions and cannot cap benefits, he said.
Opponents of the health law say the government shouldn’t require individuals to buy health insurance or employers to provide it, but the President said the system only works when everyone participates.
“The reason ... is when uninsured people can afford to buy insurance and don’t and then they get sick or they get hit by a car and show up in an emergency room, who do you think pays for that?” Mr. Obama asked. “You do — in the form of higher premiums, because hospitals have to get their money back somehow so [insurance companies] jack up premiums on people who have health insurance.”
He acknowledged that there’s a price: “The wealthiest Americans — families who make more than $250,000 a year — will have to pay a little bit more. Extremely costly health insurance plans will no longer qualify for unlimited tax breaks. And most people who can afford health insurance now have to take responsibility to buy health insurance or pay a penalty,” he said.
Those are the parts Republicans don’t like, but they are necessary to make health care more widely available to those who need it, he said.
“You would think that would not be so controversial,” Mr. Obama said. “You would think people would say ‘OK, let’s go ahead and let’s do this so everybody has insurance coverage.’”
Earlier, Democratic members of the Maryland congressional delegation warmed up the crowd for the President, telling them that the opening of the exchanges Tuesday is one important step on the journey, but the work must continue.
“We have much to do in order to ensure that the Affordable Care Act works as intended, that it increases access to quality affordable coverage and that it puts families — not insurance companies in charge of health-care decisions,” Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer told the crowd.
Some in the crowd knew little about the Affordable Care Act even though it has been front-page news for days.
Computer science student Vance Payne, 23, said he’s seen protesters in Washington decry the provisions requiring virtually everyone to buy health insurance, but he hasn’t paid much attention.
He said he needs more details about how much coverage will cost. Rates, as well as information about government subsidies, will be available starting Tuesday at www.healthcare.gov.
“Everybody needs insurance,” he said. “but if they can’t afford it it’s a tough call.”
Nearby, Brittani Brown said the Affordable Care Act is already helping her. At 23, the recent University of Maryland graduate is now able to stay on her parents’ insurance plan until age 26.
The health-care act is helping others, too, she said.
“Obviously people need help and we can debate what to do, but at the end of the day we need to come together,” she said.
Enrollment begins Tuesday for coverage that begins as soon as Jan. 1. After April 1 coverage will be required for most Americans.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tracie Mauriello is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.
Contact Tracie Mauriello at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.