Obama Says Health Bills in Congress Are ‘Not Where They Need To Be’

July 21, 2009

President Barack Obama said Tuesday the healthcare overhaul plan working its way through the U.S. Congress needs more work amid signs his top policy initiative, already rejected by Republicans, was running into deeper trouble with his own Democrats.

Obama was to meet with a group of Democratic lawmakers to discuss how to pay for the nearly $1 trillion reforms after a key congressional panel canceled Tuesday’s votes on its version of the legislation while talks continued with a group of fiscally conservative Democrats.

Asked whether he would sign any of the bills now being considered in Congress, Obama told NBC’s “Today” show: “Right now, they’re not where they need to be.”

But Obama said he was confident the final legislation would drive down spiraling healthcare costs over time.

While he has been pushing Congress to land plans to overhaul the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry on his desk by October, recently he has been saying he wants it by the end of the year, which would still lock in changes before lawmakers focus on the 2010 mid-term elections.

The plan working its way through Congress seeks to set up a government-run health insurance program to compete with private insurers, expand coverage for the 46 million uninsured, and hold down soaring healthcare costs.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee met into the early hours on the plan, but its chairman, Henry Waxman, canceled Tuesday’s session to go to the White House with panel’s Democrats.

An aide to one of the fiscally conservative Democrats, known as “Blue Dogs,” said the group might ask Obama to slow down the healthcare push. “The landscape will change after that meeting,” the aide said.

“Blue Dogs are very concerned about the financial implications of bill. There’s not enough reform made or cost-cutting,” one Blue Dog source told Reuters.

The Blue Dogs account for 51 of the 256 Democrats in the House and for seven members of the committee — enough in either case to defeat legislation if they vote with Republicans.

Democratic House leaders also acknowledged Monday their plan to raise $544 billion over 10 years for healthcare through a tax on the wealthy was in trouble and would need changes before the final bill comes to the full House for a vote.

Meanwhile, Obama held a second week of public appearances to drum up support for his plan to bring healthcare coverage to 46 million uninsured and slow soaring U.S. healthcare costs for those who now have insurance.

The effort has the feel of a political campaign, relying on grassroots organizations started during his 2008 presidential campaign to go door-to-door, hold neighborhood meetings and contact lawmakers in support of his effort.

Obama is also scheduled to hold a primetime news conference Wednesday where healthcare reform is expected to be the main focus.

Obama said again that he would be opposed to taxing healthcare benefits, an idea that has been brought up in closed door meetings of the Senate Finance Committee, whose leaders have been meeting for weeks to figure out ways to pay for healthcare overhaul.

“I continue to believe that it is not the best way for us to fund it; that we have a whole range of other options,” the president said on NBC.

(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Kim Dixon, Donna Smith, Tabassum Zakaria, editing by Vicki Allen)

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