Facing criticism from both sides of the aisle that he's pushing too hard and fast on health care reform, President Obama on Wednesday defended his "rush" to get it done and said Congress must take advantage of this rare opportunity.
"The stars are aligned," Obama said in prime-time news conference, and the American people are depending on Congress to reach a compromise promptly. He wants a deal by Congress' August recess.
"If you don't set deadlines in this town, things don't happen. The default position is inertia," the president said, singling out his critics for playing political "games" with health care reform.
Reform is critical for rebuilding the economy and controlling the deficit, Obama argued. But with momentum slowing considerably in the effort to reach a deal on time, the president conceded that he wants to "do this right" and said he wouldn't sign a bill that doesn't achieve key objectives like reducing costs.
At the news conference, called to rally support for health care reform, Obama acknowledged that Americans are "understandably queasy" about debt and deficits -- and the impact health care reform would have on both.
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Obama used the news conference to try to put skeptics at ease, both inside and outside the Beltway. He said health care reform would not only improve the quality of care they receive at reduced cost but in the long run actually rein in spiraling deficits and debt.
"If we do not control these (health care) costs, we will not be able to control our deficit," he said.
He rejected the notion that his administration only wants to "spend and spend." In an odd boast, the president said his administration has already reduced the 10-year deficit projection from $9.3 trillion to $7.1 trillion.
"Now, that's not good, but it's $2.2 trillion less than it would have been if we had the same policies in place when we came in," Obama said, blaming the Bush administration for the scope of the deficit.
Moderate Democrats known as Blue Dogs, though, are joining Republicans in raising concerns that the plans on the table will burden the federal government -- and, in turn, the taxpayers -- with unwieldy financial obligations.
In response, Obama insisted he would not tolerate a plan that adds to the deficit over the next decade. He also said he wouldn't sign a bill funded primarily through taxes on the middle class.
And he took on his most vocal Republican critics, accusing them of spreading misinformation and trying to make the debate about him.
"This isn't about me," Obama said, once again calling out Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., though not by name, for saying a loss on health care reform would "break" the president.
"This debate is not a game for these Americans, and they can't afford to wait for any longer for reform," Obama said. "They are counting on us to get this done. They are looking to us for leadership. And we can't let them down. We will pass reform that lowers cost, promotes choice and provides coverage that every American can count on. And we will do it this year."
Recent polls have shown that the public is losing confidence in his ability to guide the health care reform process.
And Republicans and moderate Democrats have serious concerns that he and his congressional allies are moving too quickly, and that in the rush to hammer out a deal they could produce an overhaul that leads to persistent and burdensome deficits while compromising the quality of care patients receive.
With the August recess looming, the status of the bills is unclear.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday that there's "no question" Democrats have the votes to pass a bill out of the chamber.
But the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, who are responsible for having put the brakes on negotiations, disagreed.
And they questioned whether the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which postponed its health care sessions Tuesday, was ready to resume work on the bill -- Chairman Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said he wants to forge ahead with a markup Thursday afternoon. The committee is the only House panel with health care jurisdiction that has not approved the bill, and the decision to delay was considered a setback for efforts to win a final package before recess.
The bill is also still stuck before the Senate Finance Committee.