WASHINGTON - The end game at hand, President Barack Obama took command yesterday of one final attempt by Democrats to enact bitterly contested health care legislation, calling for an "up or down vote" within weeks under rules denying Republicans the ability to kill the bill with mere talk.
Appearing before a White House audience of invited guests, many of them wearing white medical coats, Obama rejected calls from Republicans to draft new legislation from scratch. "I don't see how another year of negotiations would help. Moreover, the insurance companies aren't starting over," the president said, referring to a recent round of announced premium increases affecting millions who purchase individual coverage.
While Obama said he wanted action within a few weeks, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) seemed to hint a final outcome could take far longer. "We remain committed to this effort and we'll use every option available to deliver meaningful reform this year," he said.
The results will affect nearly every American, mandating major changes in the ways they receive and pay for health care or leaving in place current systems that leave tens of millions with no coverage and many others dissatisfied with what they do get. With Republicans united in opposition, there is no certainty about the outcome in Congress - or even that Democrats will go along with changes Obama urged in what he described as a bipartisan gesture.
With polls showing voters unhappy and Democrats worried about this fall's elections, Obama also sought to cast the coming showdown in terms larger than health care, which is an enormously ambitious undertaking in its own right. "At stake right now is not just our ability to solve this problem, but our ability to solve any problem," he said.
Republicans dug in for another struggle on an issue that they agreed would echo into the fall campaign.
The Senate GOP leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said a decision by Democrats to invoke rules that bar filibusters would be "met with outrage" by the public. "This is really not an argument between Democrats and Republicans. It's an argument between Democrats and the American people," he said.
The legislation under discussion still is largely along the lines Obama has long sought and GOP critics attack as a government takeover of health care. It would extend coverage care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans while cracking down on insurance company practices such as denying policies on the basis of a pre-existing medical conditions.