By Perry Bacon Jr. and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Emboldened by divided Democrats and polls that show rising public anxiety about President Obama's handling of health care and the economy, Republicans on Monday launched an aggressive effort to link the two, comparing the health-care bills moving through Congress to what they labeled as a failed economic stimulus bill.
And the news Monday that the Obama administration would delay release of a congressionally mandated report on the nation's economic conditions only stoked the rhetoric, spawning GOP speculation that the White House is trying to avoid bad news amid the health-care debate.
"The last time the president made grand promises and demanded passage of a bill before it could be reviewed, we ended up with the colossal stimulus failure and unemployment near 10 percent," Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said. "Now the president wants Americans to trust him again, but he can't back up the utopian promises he's making.
"He insists his health-care plan won't add to our nation's deficit, despite the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office saying exactly the opposite," DeMint added. "And today we learn that the president is refusing to release a critical report on the state of our economy, which contains facts essential to this debate. What is he hiding?"
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele said in a speech Monday that Obama is "conducting a dangerous experiment with our health care." Steele added: "He's conducting a reckless experiment with our economy."
Obama responded by resuming his public campaign for health-care reform, stumping on the issue for the third time in four days. "The need for reform is urgent, and it is indisputable," he said at Children's National Medical Center in Washington.
But later in the day, Obama hinted for the first time that he would not let the August deadline become a deal-breaker.
"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," he said Monday night on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."
Lacking unity on an alternative agenda to Obama's health-care plans, Republicans have instead focused on a strategy of rallying public opposition and wooing the conservative Democrats in Congress, whose votes will ultimately determine the fate of any health-care bill. That plan depends in large part on Congress going on break before it votes on a bill. On Monday, though, Republicans made clear that they see an opportunity to derail the legislation now.
The RNC started running ads blasting the Democratic proposals, and William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard, implored Republicans to "go for the kill." "We have plenty of time to work next year on sensible and targeted health reform in a bipartisan way. But first we need to get rid of Obamacare. Now is the time to do so," Kristol wrote on his magazine's blog.
Several House Democrats in the conservative Blue Dog Coalition have already said they will not vote for the current House bill, citing the risk of raising taxes in this economic climate. The House bill would expand insurance to 97 percent of Americans but would add a surtax of 1 to 5.4 percent for families earning more than $350,000 a year. Democrats are considering raising the surtax so that it applies only to individuals making at least $500,000 and families making $1 million a year or more, aides to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Monday night.
The Office of Management and Budget's midyear report, measuring economic growth, job creation and budget deficits, was expected later this month, but administration officials said the report will be delayed by several weeks. The unemployment rate has increased to 9.5 percent over the past several months, although administration officials argue that it would have risen even higher without the $787 billon economic stimulus package, which they say will result in even more benefits as more of the money is spent in the next year.
The officials said the report's holdup is not unusual in presidential transition years, noting that Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton each published their initial budget updates weeks late.
"The notion that this is somehow motivated by anything other than a transition from one administration to the next is a little on the silly side," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said the missed deadline for the budget review is hardly unusual. But he added that the missed forecasts should cause lawmakers to slow down as they weigh health care and other major proposals.
"It is unusual to try and move trillions in new spending before we have the right data to inform such major decisions," he said.
Steele, too, urged Democrats to give up on Obama's August deadline.
"They want to get a bill done in the next two weeks. This reckless approach is an ill-conceived attempt to push through an experiment, and all us should be scared to death," he said at the National Press Club. "Slow down, Mr. President."
Obama seemed to reject that call, though, in an evening conference call with a handpicked group of liberal bloggers. "The time for talk is through," the president said. "Now is the time for us to go ahead and act."
Democrats, meanwhile, say that Republicans are offering few ideas to improve the health-care system.
"Despite the crisis that confronts American families, the GOP continues to argue for the status quo on behalf of the special interests," said Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "If we do nothing, as the Republican 'Party of No' would have us do, we not only will ensure more of the same but guarantee a growing crisis that will put a burden on our children that they will never overcome."
"Instead of doing nothing and using insurance industry talking points to defend the broken health-care system we currently have, Republicans should work with us or at least put forward some new ideas," said Doug Thornell, a spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), a Democratic leader in the House.
A number of Republicans have offered health-care legislation, but some would not extend health insurance to the 46 million to 47 million Americans who do not have it, as the Democrats intend. Instead, the GOP bills focus on reducing medical malpractice lawsuits; making it easier for self-employed people to buy health insurance; and encouraging businesses to set up programs that reward employees who lose weight, stop smoking or take other measures to improve their health.
"People don't know as much as we'd like them to know about our better solutions because the proposals out of our Democrat friends here in Congress and the White House are coming at us. It's like standing in front a machine gun. While we're fending them off, we're trying to talk about our better solutions," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in an interview. "But it's going to take a while for people to realize we do have better solutions, especially when the White House continues to call us the 'Party of No.' "
While almost all Republicans in the House have spoken out against the House Democrats' bill, a group of Senate Republicans have spent months meeting with Finance Committee Chairman . Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to come up with bipartisan legislation in that chamber. The group includes Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.), Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine). The White House is reaching out to those lawmakers, particularly Snowe, who voted for the stimulus package.
The negotiators said Monday that they were making progress on a bipartisan bill and would meet all day Tuesday to hash out provisions. But to the chagrin of White House officials, Baucus would not commit to presenting a completed product this week.
Staff writer Shailagh Murray and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.