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Obama: Finish health reform

From NBC's Athena Jones
Saying the American people and the American economy could not afford to wait another decade or more to pass a meaningful overhaul of the health care system, President Obama on Wednesday urged Congress to "finish its work" and get a bill to his desk.

Revamping the nation's health care system has long been at the top of the president's domestic agenda and the issue has sparked rancorous debate, especially during a series of town hall meetings last summer. Critics say Obama has spent too much time and too much political capital on the issue at the expense of focusing on efforts to put Americans back to work.

Today's brief remarks represented what the White House hopes will be the beginning of the final act in the long and winding saga to pass health care legislation. The goal is to get the bill through Congress in the "next few weeks" -- ideally before the Easter recess -- with the House passing the Senate bill with fixes and the Senate passing the fixes through reconciliation, which requires a simple majority rather than the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. Obama today sought to make the case for moving forward quickly, given consistent and unified Republican opposition to the plan after a year of debate.

"I believe the United States Congress owes the American people a final vote on health care reform," he said to applause before East Room audience of health care professionals from around the country, many of them wearing their trademark white coats. "We have debated this issue thoroughly, not just for the past year, but for decades. Reform has already passed the House with a majority. It has already passed the Senate with a supermajority of sixty votes."

The president went on to name past bills that passed using reconciliation -- though he used the term "up-or-down vote" -- including welfare reform, the Children's Health Insurance Program, COBRA health coverage for the unemployed, and both Bush tax cuts.

Obama's proposal would expand coverage, adding some 30 million people to the health insurance rolls, ban discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions, expand Medicare prescription drug coverage and provide subsidies to low-income people to help them buy coverage. It would pay for these changes by taxing high-cost health plans and reducing Medicare spending.

The administration and many Democratic members of Congress have long-emphasized that a piece-meal approach to the health care overhaul simply won't work, points the president repeated at last week's televised bipartisan health care summit at Blair House, across the street from the White House. The administration is confident Democrats in Congress will be able to muster the votes for the roughly $950 billion plan.

In a letter to congressional leaders from both parties yesterday, the president offered to consider Republican ideas to combat fraud, increase Medicaid payments to doctors, expand funding for pilot programs to resolve medical malpractice disputes -- for instance through health courts -- and expand Health Savings Accounts as part of the planned overhaul.

"This is our proposal; this is where we've ended up," Obama said. "It's an approach that has been debated and changed and I believe improved over the last year. It incorporates the best ideas from Democrats and Republicans - including some of the ideas that Republicans offered during the health care summit."

House Minority Leader John Boehner shot down the offer to include the Republican proposals in a bill he sees as fundamentally flawed.

The president, whose last best push on health care has him hitting the road next week to sell his proposal in Philadelphia and St. Louis, closed his remarks by arguing that congressional passage of this overhaul legislation was not just about bringing down health care costs.

"At stake right now is not just our ability to solve this problem, but our ability to solve any problem," he said. "The American people want to know if it's still possible for Washington to look out for their interests and their future. They are waiting for us to act. They are waiting for us to lead. And as long as I hold this office, I intend to provide that leadership. I do not know how this plays politically, but I know it's right."