Health Care

Lawmakers Weigh In On Obama's Health Care Pitch

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President Obama's speech Wednesday night sketched out his plan to overhaul America's health care system. But the challenge is the same as it's been every morning since the debate began: crafting a bill that can pass both chambers of Congress. Rep. Mike Pence (R-IN) says Republicans didn't hear anything new in Obama's speech.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama drew a wide range of responses to his speech to Congress last night. That speech was aimed at shifting the debate over health coverage. Mr. Obama said he wants to protect insurance Americans have now and make insurance affordable for those who don't have it. Throughout this morning's program, we're hearing different parts of the speech and different responses to it.

NPR's Andrea Seabrook was listening to lawmakers from both parties.

ANDREA SEABROOK: At the end of President Obama's speech, Senators and members of Congress walked out into a fine and balmy Washington evening. That's not to say there wasn't a certain amount of heat rising especially from Republicans.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): I thought it was a complete disaster.

SEABROOK: Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. It was the tone of the president's speech that put off Senator Graham - combative he called it, not constructive.

Sen. GRAHAM: It, quite frankly, made me believe that the president has sort of lost his cool on this.

SEABROOK: And again, it was one of Senator Graham's own colleagues, South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson who shouted out, you lie when the president said his health care plan would not apply to illegal immigrants. Senator Graham said it was uncalled for and Wilson later apologized. But it exposed the sting Republicans felt during the speech. Even as the president talked about putting aside differences…

Representative MIKE PENCE (Republican, Indiana): There were a few thorns on those olive branches.

SEABROOK: Indiana's Mike Pence, the head of the Republican Conference in the House. He said Republicans didn't hear anything new in Mr. Obama's speech.

Rep. PENCE: You know, it was one more speech about the same bad plan.

SEABROOK: And the centrist Republicans - the ones the president says he would like to reach out to - they weren't very happy either. Mark Kirk of Illinois is a leader of moderate Republicans.

Representative MARK KIRK (Republican, Illinois): I thought it was an unfortunate speech, which had partisan overtones that didn't build the links that he needed to build for a bipartisan plan.

SEABROOK: As for Democrats' reaction to the president, well, it almost could have been a different speech they heard. Listen to Florida's Kendrick Meek.

Representative KENDRICK MEEK (Democrat, Florida): Walking away from the chamber tonight, members knew that they had a responsibility. Not a responsibility to say no, and that I don't understand it, that we don't need to do it, and that we need to kick the can down the street a little further, but the fact that they have to do something.

SEABROOK: Meek and other Democrats said they felt inspired by the president. That Mr. Obama gave a great history lesson and plenty of hard facts to push the health care debate forward.

Rep. MEEK: And the fact that the president made a commitment that we will not put one additional red cent toward the debt. And doing this is very, very powerful - very, very powerful.

SEABROOK: Moderate Democrats seemed to be the most pleased leaving the chamber. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota is a leader of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats.

Representative STEPHANIE HERSETH SANDLIN (Leader, Blue Dog Democrats): The art of politics is compromise and what's possible. And that's why, as a Blue Dog and a centrist member of Congress, I felt like some ways it called out some of the extremes on the both sides to say, you can't get everything you want.

SEABROOK: In both the House and the Senate, winning the votes of centrist Democrats is key to getting a health care bill passed. So, getting their support, while not scaring away more liberal Democrats, is part of what's making the process of overhauling health care - well, messy in the words of Democratic Caucus leader, Chris Van Hollen.

Representative CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (Democratic, Maryland): Yes, it's messy. Yes, there will be, you know, starts and stops. But the good news from this speech was that it really did give the whole issue a kick in the pants.

SEABROOK: Whether that kick felt inspirational or bullying depends on who you talk to. Democratic leaders hope the speech had just enough reason and just enough fight to get the health care debate back on track and through Congress by the end of the year.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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