WASHINGTON, Sept. 9, 2009 — -- In his address to a joint session of Congress tonight, President Obama decried the "partisan spectacle" that has stymied the debate over health care in recent months and called on Democrats and Republicans to come together for a "season of action."
"[T]he time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action," the president told members of the House and Senate who showed their partisanship in their reactions throughout the 45-minute speech.
"Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do," Obama said. "Now is the time to deliver on health care."
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Obama was interrupted more than 50 times by applause from members of Congress, including a few bipartisan gestures of approval.
But one member, Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., interrupted the president's speech to yell, "You lie!" after the president asserted his proposals would not provide health insurance to illegal immigrants.
Later, Wilson offered a written apology.
"This evening I let my emotions get the best of me when listening to the president's remarks regarding the coverage of illegal immigrants in the health care bill," he said. "While I disagree with the president's statement, my comments were inappropriate and regrettable. I extend sincere apologies to the president for this lack of civility."
Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., a retired cardiothoracic surgeon, delivered the formal Republican response to the president's speech and rapped Obama for not taking the controversial idea of a government-run "public option" off the table.
Echoing points made by Republican leaders, Boustany said the president should have scrapped Democratic proposals and started over.
"Most Americans wanted to hear the president tell [House] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi, [Senate] Majority Leader [Harry] Reid and the rest of Congress that it's time to start over on a common-sense, bipartisan plan focused on lowering the cost of health care while improving quality," he said.
In advance of Boustany's response, Democrats circulated a briefing that noted Boustany was sued for malpractice eight times during his medical career.
With expectations high for him to deliver more specifics, Obama said the plan he is proposing would cost about $900 billion over 10 years, which he noted was less than the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and less than the Bush tax cuts.
"Most of these costs will be paid for with money already being spent -- but spent badly -- in the existing health care system," he said.
Obama expressed his support for a government insurance option that would compete with private insurance companies as a way stimulate competition and lower overall health care costs.
"Let me be clear -- it would only be an option for those who don't have insurance. No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance," he said.
The president did not threaten to veto any legislation that does not contain a public option and stressed that the public option is just one aspect of his overall plan.
"To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage affordable for those without it," he said. "The public option is only a means to that end -- and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.
"And to my Republican friends," he added, "I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have."
Obama Invokes Kennedy's Memory, Decades of Work on Health Care
Near the end of the speech, Obama shared a letter by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., that he received a few days ago but which was written in May when Kennedy learned his illness was terminal.
With Kennedy's widow, Victoria, and his children, Ted Jr., Patrick and Kara watching from the speaker's box in the House gallery, Obama said that in the letter Kennedy expressed confidence that Congress this year would pass health care reform legislation, calling it "that great unfinished business of our society."
"For some of Ted Kennedy's critics, his brand of liberalism represented an affront to American liberty. In their mind, his passion for universal health care was nothing more than a passion for big government," Obama said. "But those of us who knew Teddy and worked with him here -- people of both parties -- know that what drove him was something more. On issues like these, Ted Kennedy's passion was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience."
Obama pledged again not to sign any legislation that adds to the federal deficit, a line that won him a bipartisan standing ovation.
"Our health care problem is our deficit problem. Nothing else even comes close," he said.
Obama spoke directly to the nation's senior citizens to assuage concerns about Medicare dollars being used to pay for health care reform and pledged that would not happen.
"[N]ot a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan," he said. "The only thing this plan would eliminate is the hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud, as well as unwarranted subsidies in Medicare that go to insurance companies -- subsidies that do everything to pad their profits and nothing to improve your care."
Obama said his plan incorporates ideas from both Democrats and Republicans, including one advanced by his rival in last year's general election, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. He said he now backs McCain's pitch to provide low-cost coverage to Americans who cannot get insurance because of a pre-existing condition.
"This was a good idea when Sen. John McCain proposed it in the campaign, it's a good idea now, and we should embrace it," the president said.
Obama pledged to continue to work towards bipartisanship and common ground.
"If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen. My door is always open," the president said.
But Obama issued a warning to those who he said do not have an interest in working toward real reform.
"I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it," he said. "If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now."
Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress came at a crucial moment in the debate over health care reform. The White House has said repeatedly in recent days that the president would get more specific in this address than he has in speeches over the last several months, raising the bar for something new that would move the debate forward after weeks of stalemate on Capitol Hill.
Obama admitted in an exclusive interview with "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts that by giving Congress so much leeway in shaping the legislation, rather than sending his own bill to the Hill, he "probably left too much ambiguity out there."
That ambiguity gave the president's opponents a window of opportunity to criticize the overall push for reform and fill the void with what the president called "scare tactics" in the speech.
The result for the White House was a summer of headaches and an August recess that came without a vote on legislation.
Administration officials called the president's address "a necessary ingredient to completing the process of health care reform" and the "biggest rhetorical arrow in his quiver."
A senior official suggested the whole debate is all going, more or less, according to plan and that the address was important for Congress to get some instruction from the commander in chief.
"He wanted to let the process run," the official said. "He wanted to have an exhaustive debate. We've had that now. Now it's time to draw the strands together and say to the American people -- and say to the Congress -- here's the plan that we should embrace and let's move forward and get it done."
The White House said it was the intention all along to give a speech to Congress during the fall, but the president is delivering it a little bit earlier than originally planned because he didn't want the discussion to devolve again.
"The best way to frame the final leg of this journey is for the president to define it," a senior administration official said.
White House Wants Quick Action From Congress
White House officials say that they expect Congress to move on the issue, starting Thursday.
"We certainly want to see Congress move. We don't think the all of it will get done tomorrow," an administration official said, adding that there's nothing new to be said within Congress.
"Now it's time to bring this to a close," an administration official said, claiming the speech would mark "the beginning of the final weeks of competing this process."
White House aides say they don't expect the plan to be a perfect mirror image of the president's speech proposals, yet they hope it will be close.
"The president has a plan," a senior administration official said. "He believes it's the right plan. He wants Congress to pass the plan. And he expects the Congress will pass the plan. Will it chapter and verse, in every particular [point], mirror exactly what he said? We'll see. We hope that's the case. Will it conform to it in its major elements? I believe that as well."
Administration officials said that the recent work in the Senate Finance Committee has been a very positive step. They attributed that, partially, to the president's address prompting movement on this issue.
"I do think that the president's speech tonight and the fact of the president's speech tonight has had a very positive affect in terms of moving the process along," the senior administration official said.
Administration officials hinted that the option of reconciliation is still very much on the table.
"I think getting something done is paramount here," said the senior administration official. "We want to bring along everyone who's willing to come with us, but the fact that not everyone is willing to come with us is not an excuse to fail in dealing with what is really a fundamental issue that has to be done."
In a private meeting with Pelosi, D-Calif., and Reid, D-Nev., Tuesday, the president's message was clear: He wants a health care bill passed soon.
But as the White House and the Democratic congressional leadership try and get to the finish line, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wants to hit the brakes.
"I know the majority is impatient. They're anxious to jam this through. The American people are not impatient to have this done. They think we ought to take our time and get it right," McConnell said Tuesday.
The president may have offered more specifics, but some Republicans said that it is too late.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called on the president to declare a do-over on the health care reform effort.
"I would hope that he'd come to the House tonight and hit the reset button and say, 'All right, listen, we've heard the American people. It's time to stop where we're going, and let's start over,'" he said on Capitol Hill Wednesday.