President Obama, Democrats: Not Going to Rush Health Care

Senator-elect Scott Brown meets with GOP Senate leaders in Washington.

January 21, 2010, 7:09 AM

Jan. 21, 2010— -- Newly-elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown arrived in Washington, D.C. today as the man of the hour.

Two months ago, few would have heard of the state senator, and rarely has a freshman senator come to the nation's capital with so much fanfare. But Brown's shocking win has rattled the political world and threatens to topple Democrats' health care agenda, even before he is sworn in.

Brown told reporters today that he thinks President Obama has done a good job on some issues, such as dealing with North Korea and Iran, but that the Democrats' health care agenda is not good for Massachusetts.

"I am not in the favor of one size fits all. I am more of a states' rights person," Brown said.

Standing outside the Senate building, he added, "This is the best place in the world when it comes to solving problems, and we've sort of lost our way."

Brown met with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and interim Massachusetts Sen. Paul Kirk. He won't become a senator until the election results are officially certified, and that could take another week but his win has already shaken up health care strategies.

Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., acknowledged that there will not be enough votes in the House to pass the Senate health care bill, as had been suggested as a way to enact the health care bill and avoid another Senate vote on it before Brown is seated.

"It is not possible to pass the Senate bill in its present form," Pelosi told reporters. "In every meeting that we've had, there's been nothing to give me any thought that that bill could pass right now the way it is."

Pelosi said "unease" would be a "gentle word" to categorize the feelings of members of the House, many of whom are taking issues with provisions in the Senate bill that give breaks to Nebraska and other states, and an excise tax on high-end insurance plans. But the speaker insisted that health care discussions will move forward.

"Nothing is being discarded. Everything is on the table," she said.

Democrats admitted Wednesday that they may have to accept a trimmed down version of their health care bill.

"The election in Massachusetts changes the math in the Senate," Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters Wednesday. "It's easy math. It's simple math."

The new math: Senate Democrats do not have enough votes they need to avoid a Republican filibuster of any major bill, including health care. Brown has vowed he will be the 41st senator to vote against the health care legislation being crafted in Congress by Democrats, who say, for now, they will have to wait.

Brown defeated heavily favored Democrat Martha Coakley in the special election to replace the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.

President Obama warned Democrats not to "jam" a health care reform bill through now that they've lost their commanding majority in the Senate, and said they must wait for Brown to be sworn into office.

"Here's one thing I know and I just want to make sure that this is off the table: The Senate certainly shouldn't try to jam anything through until Scott Brown is seated," the president told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview. "People in Massachusetts spoke. He's got to be part of that process."

Read the transcript of President Obama's exclusive interview with George Stephanopoulos.

Reid got the message.

"We're not going to rush into anything," the Senate majority leader said on Capitol Hill Wednesday. "As you've heard, we're going to wait until the new senator arrives before we do anything more on health care. There are many different things that we can do to move forward on health care, but we're not making any of those decisions now."

Today, Kerry said the process of seating Brown should happen "as expeditiously as possible."

Even though some Republicans are wary of Brown -- he touted himself as an independent Republican in his campaign -- many are ecstatic about getting the 41st "No" vote against health care and are convinced that it means an end to the Democratic bill.

"The American people have spoken," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "The people of Massachusetts have spoken for the rest of America. Stop this process."

"Sit down in open and transparent negotiations, let's begin from the beginning," urged the former GOP presidential candidate.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insisted that health care legislation will move forward, despite Brown's win.

"Heeding the particular concerns of the voters of Massachusetts, we heard, we will heed, we will move forward with their considerations in mind. But we will move forward," Pelosi told the U.S. Conference of Mayors Wednesday. She, however, did not specify what Plan B is.

Obama told ABC News that the same voter anger that swept him into office in 2008 carried Brown into office.

"Here's my assessment of not just the vote in Massachusetts, but the mood around the country: the same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office," the president said. "People are angry and they are frustrated. Not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years."

President Obama Says to 'Coalesce' Around 'Core Elements'

Obama told Stephanopolous that it was important for the American people to take a look at the substance and details of the health care reform legislation that Congress is considering.

"I think point number two is that it is very important to look at the substance of this package and for the American people to understand that a lot of the fear mongering around this bill isn't true," Obama said.

The president said while it was not his job to dictate to Congress a legislative strategy, he would set a direction on how to achieve a bill that both the House and Senate can pass.

"I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements of the package that people agree on," he said.

Obama said that while there were provisions in the Senate bill that the House does not like, the two bills "overlap about 90 percent."

The president said there are "core elements" to the health care legislation that both Republican and Democrats agree on and they must come together to work for comprehensive reform.

"We know that we need insurance reform, that the health insurance companies are taking advantage of people. We know that we have to have some form of cost containment because if we don't, then our budgets are going to blow up," he said. "And we know that small businesses are going to need help so that they can provide health insurance for their families. Those are the core, some of the core elements of this bill."

Republicans believe a win in the bluest of blue states, where a Republican had not been elected to the U.S. Senate since 1972, amounts to a popular rebuke of the president's agenda.

"There's been a pattern here that began last spring and the administration has refused to acknowledge what the people out across the country have been saying," GOP chairman Michael Steele said on "Good Morning America" Wednesday.

Obama said Steele's criticism is not a "plausible point," but acknowledged that steps were taken last year that, while "necessary," were unpopular with the American people.

The president said he understands voters' anger over the Wall Street bailouts, but he insisted that it was the right thing to do.

"I make no apologies for that, at all. But we knew at the time how politically toxic that was," he said. "What it gave people a sense of is, 'We're spending all this money, but I'm not getting any help.'"

The president was reflective about his first 12 months and said there is a constant balance in moving forward on what he called "big agendas" and trying to bring change to Washington.

"Am I satisfied with the progress that we've made on changing how Washington works? Absolutely not," he said.

He defended his administration's approach, noting that most of the big issues he took on last year "were not ones that I chose."

"I didn't campaign on saving the financial system," he said.

While Obama did not admit to having any second thoughts about the legislative strategy and policies his administration pursued last year, he acknowledged that there was too much focus on the process, particularly when it came to health care.

"I think that if we had gotten health care done faster, people would have understood the degree to which every single day... health care is part of a broader context of, 'How am I going to be able to move the middle class forward in a more secure and stable way?'" he said. "I think that what's happened is, is over the course of this year, there's been a fixation, an obsession in terms of the focus on the health care process in Congress that distracted from all the other things that we're trying to do to make sure that this economy is working for ordinary people."

Obama said that he feels he lost a direct connection to the American people in his first year in office because he focused too heavily on policy-making.

"If there's one thing that I regret this year is that we were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises that were in front of us that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values," Obama said.

The president said he made a mistake in assuming that if he focused on policy decisions, the American people would understand the reasoning behind them.

"That I do think is a mistake of mine," Obama said. "I think the assumption was if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on this provision or that law or if we're making a good rational decision here, then people will get it."

U.S. Efforts in Haiti Could be Good for National Security, Image Abroad, Obama Says

Instead, the president said the American people ended up with a "feeling of remoteness and detachment" from the policy makers in Washington who are making big decisions.

"I think, you know, what they ended up seeing is this feeling of remoteness and detachment where there's these technocrats up here making decisions. Maybe some of them are good, maybe some of them aren't, but do they really get us and what we're going through?" he said.

Obama said he felt he could do a better job connecting to the American people in his second year in office.

"I think that I can do a better job of that, and partly because I do believe that we're in a stronger position now than we were a year ago," he said.

Obama said the U.S. efforts in Haiti could ultimately be good for national security.

"I want to make sure that when America projects its power around the world, it's not seen only when it's fighting a war," he said. "It's got to also be able to help people in desperate need."

Obama said the United States is being "very careful" about working with the Haitian government and the United Nations on earthquake recovery and relief efforts to avoid any perception the U.S. is there to take over and occupy Haiti.

"There's going to be a longer-term agenda, which is how do you reconstruct a nation that was already incredibly impoverished, that's now been flattened, and a government that, you know, basic records have been destroyed," the president said. "The basic instruments of government in that country are gone. We've got to help Haiti stand back up."

Asked by Stephanopoulos if the United States can afford to do that, Obama said, "We can't afford not to do it because Haiti is our neighbor."

"I think the world looks to us as the world's sole superpower, even though sometimes they complain about us, even though they snipe at us, deep down I think they understand that to those to whom much is given, much is expected," he said.

Obama Family Settled into Life in Washington

After a year in the White House, Obama said he is constantly stunned by how "poised, cheerful, well-adjusted" his daughters, Malia and Sasha have been.

"You know, they entered into a new school halfway in the year. They haven't missed a beat," the president said. "They haven't gotten an attitude; they haven't started acting any different than they were back in Chicago."

ABC News' Jonathan Karl contributed to this report.