Howard Rich's Blog

July 21, 2009

Obama refuses to rule out surtax for health care

By ERICA WERNER (AP)

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is declining to take a surtax off the table in the escalating debate over how to pay for a new health care system that would cover millions of uninsured people.

Obama noted in a nationally broadcast interview Tuesday that “the House has put forward a surtax,” but was noncommittal about whether it should actually be part of the reconstituted health care system he is pushing.

The president also said on NBC’s “Today” show that he is pushing hard for legislation before Congress’s August recess because “if you don’t set a deadline in this town, nothing happens. The default in Washington is inaction and inertia.”

He said people who are better off, “like myself,” should step up and help contribute to bankrolling the new system.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

WASHINGTON (AP) — With his signature health care initiative buffeted from all sides, President Barack Obama is summoning key House Democrats to the White House as he increases pressure on Congress to get the job done.

Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee — the only one of three House panels weighing health overhaul legislation that has yet to pass it — were to meet with the president Tuesday afternoon, the White House announced.

That follows a committee drafting session that lasted past midnight Monday as panel members slogged through numerous amendments, with majority Democrats turning back Republican attempts to change the bill. But Committee Chairman Henry Waxman’s bigger difficulties were with his own party, particularly a bloc of fiscally conservative Democrats who oppose the legislation in its current form over costs and other issues.

Waxman and his aides have been deep in talks with these conservative “Blue Dog” Democrats, and as the panel wrapped up its work in the wee hours Waxman announced he was canceling a drafting session planned for Tuesday so negotiations could continue.

“We’re having conversations with different members to work out some of the issues so we can make this thing move forward,” Waxman, D-Calif., told reporters. He declined to elaborate.

Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who chairs the Blue Dog health care task force, said earlier in the evening that there was still plenty of work to be done. “If you’re wondering if we’ve reached some agreement, the answer is no,” said Ross.

It remained to be seen whether the president’s involvement would change that.

The House bill would, for the first time, require all individuals to have health insurance and all employers to provide it. The poor would get subsidies to buy insurance and insurers would be barred from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

Prior to his meeting with the Energy and Commerce Democrats on Tuesday, Obama planned brief remarks on health care, something that’s become a near-daily occurrence as the president has moved swiftly from hands-off to deeply engaged on his top domestic priority.

Obama’s increased personal involvement comes with Republican criticism sharpening, outside groups growing more strident and sticker shock reverberating around Capitol Hill in the wake of a bleak prognosis from the Congressional Budget Office last week saying lawmakers’ health proposals wouldn’t hold down costs.

Obama has repeatedly cited lowering costs as a top goal of any health overhaul plan, alongside extending coverage to the 50 million uninsured.

Meanwhile the president’s own poll numbers are slipping. And while he’s continuing to say he wants health care legislation to pass this year, he’s grown less insistent about the House and Senate passing bills before leaving Washington for their August recess.

“I want this done now. Now, if there are no deadlines, nothing gets done in this town,” Obama told PBS’s “The NewsHour” on Monday. “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.”

Obama planned a prime-time news conference Wednesday and a town hall in Ohio on Thursday.

On Capitol Hill, the legislation moved forward fitfully after concrete advances last week, when three committees — one in the Senate and two in the House — passed sweeping health overhaul bills. But the bills attracted no GOP support, and in each House committee several Democrats defected and opposed the legislation.

The toughest lift was in Energy and Commerce but there were indications Monday some concerns were being soothed. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who with other anti-abortion Democrats had threatened to oppose the bill over concerns it would fund abortions, said a compromise was being worked out that would protect state laws on abortion. Stupak didn’t give details and aides said there was no final deal.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is floating an idea that could make proposed tax increases more palatable to the Blue Dogs. She would like to limit income tax increases to couples making more than $1 million a year and individuals making more than $500,000, Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said Monday. The bill passed by the House Ways and Means Committee last week would increase taxes on couples making as little as $350,000 a year and individuals annually making as little as $280,000.

In the Senate, negotiators seeking a bipartisan compromise reported progress Monday. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said there’s tentative agreement on four big policy issues out of a list of about one dozen. He would not elaborate.

Associated Press writers David Espo, Stephen Ohlemacher, Alan Fram, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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