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‘The time for bickering is over’

Obama urges Congress to overhaul health care, spells out details; Denounces misrepresentations, evokes Kennedy's moral stance

By Lisa Wangsness and Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / September 10, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama delivered an impassioned defense last night of his plan to overhaul the US health care system, accusing his critics of distorting his views while setting a tougher and more determined tone for the debate as it enters a crucial phase on Capitol Hill.

In a rare primetime speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama grew animated as he sought to rally Democrats around a policy initiative that has attracted heavy criticism, saying failure was not an option. He poignantly invoked the memory of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who worked for nearly four decades to pass universal health care. And he warned the gathered lawmakers that he would no longer tolerate what he described as misrepresentations about his goals, which he attempted to explain in greater detail last night.

“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. “I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what’s in the plan, we will call you out.’’

It was the kind of performance that supporters of expanded health care coverage and new insurance rules have said they hoped to hear from a president who has up to now ceded control of the details to Congress, where the legislation has become bogged down amid partisan battles and intraparty disputes among factions of Democrats. Obama is scheduled preside over a health care rally in Minneapolis on Saturday.

He delivered the one-hour speech as Victoria Reggie Kennedy, the senator’s widow, sat next to Michelle Obama in the visitor’s gallery. Kennedy’s sons, Edward M. Kennedy Jr. and Representative Patrick Kennedy, and his daughter, Kara Kennedy, also were among the guests.

As the speech progressed, the rarely emotive president seemed to cast off his characteristic cool. He read from a letter written to him by Senator Kennedy in May, when he learned he would soon die of brain cancer, to be delivered upon his death. Kennedy wrote that the health care issue “ ‘is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but the fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.’ ’’

The president said last night: “That large-heartedness - that concern and regard for the plight of others - is not a partisan feeling. It is not a Republican or a Democratic feeling. It, too, is part of the American character. Our ability to stand in other people’s shoes. A recognition that we are all in this together, that when fortune turns against one of us, others are there to lend a helping hand.’’

Obama made a strong case for a public insurance option, the issue that has proved among the most divisive. But he did not insist on it, saying he would consider alternatives that meet those goals.

“But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can’t find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice,’’ he said, to thunderous applause.

The president’s speech was only his second to a joint session, underscoring the enormous stakes for his presidency in getting a health care overhaul passed. He had two audiences: the fractious members in the chamber, who have failed to meet their own deadlines for passing legislation and remain at odds over the details, and the millions of Americans watching at home, who polls show have gradually come to doubt the Democrats’ plans for change and believe the overhaul will do them more harm than good. A new AP poll yesterday said 52 percent now disapprove of the president’s handling of the issue.

Obama combined his emotional appeal with details, spelling out a number of policies that he wants included in a health care bill. He also tried to lay out a rationale for his approach - based on shared responsibility among individuals, businesses, the government, providers, and insurers - and remind the country why he believes the overhaul is necessary.

The vast majority of Americans who already have insurance, he said, need “security and stability,’’ the assurance that if they lose their job or get sick, they won’t go without care. The uninsured, he said, need affordable coverage.

His plan would require all individuals to obtain insurance or face a penalty; prohibit insurers from refusing to cover the sick; and create an exchange where the uninsured can shop for insurance more easily, with tax credits available on a sliding scale based on income.

The intensity the debate has generated was on vivid display last night, even within the ornate confines of the crowded House chamber: “You lie!’’ shouted Republican Representative Joseph Wilson of South Carolina when Obama said the health care plan would not result in coverage for illegal immigrants.

Such an outburst is virtually unheard of during a president’s speech to Congress, and it produced gasps in the chamber. Wilson later issued a statement apologizing for letting his emotions get the better of him, calling his remark “inappropriate and regrettable.’’ He also called the White House personally to say he was sorry.

Even while Obama took pains to point out areas of bipartisan agreement between Kennedy and a number of his GOP colleagues, prospects for a bipartisan agreement in the Senate earlier in the day yesterday appeared to dim. Senator Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Finance Committee, announced he would begin drafting legislation next week with or without Republican support. That plan is not expected to include a public plan option.

“There’s also not only a time and place to discuss and try to work out agreements, but there’s also a time and place to reach decisions,’’ Baucus said, reflecting the exasperation of many in his party.

Rising tension among Democrats, who appear tired of getting bludgeoned by Republicans and other opponents for weeks, was evident even before the speech.

“The president needs to lead on this issue,’’ said Senator Christopher Dodd, who stepped in for Kennedy to shepherd a health care proposal through the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which voted on its plan almost two months ago. “We wasted a tremendous opportunity, not moving forward. We could have postponed the August break, but it is what it is.’’

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