WASHINGTON (BP)--President Obama exhorted Congress to pass health-care reform according to a plan he outlined Sept. 9, but his speech did little to allay the concerns of most critics, especially regarding federal funding of abortion.
Addressing a joint session of Congress and a national television audience, Obama sought to regain momentum on an initiative for which support has been faltering increasingly in recent months. Afterward, it remained to be seen if the speech would revive his push for health-care reform. It appeared the differences over the president's proposal may only have hardened in some sectors of the debate, and he still faced the challenge of convincing moderate members of his own party to back his plan.
The plan Obama was "announcing" to the joint session, he said, would address the goals of providing "more security and stability" for those with health insurance and coverage for those without insurance, as well as slowing the increase in health-care costs.
He told Congress and the American public "nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have." He continued to promote a public, or government-run, option, saying the White House believes less than five percent of Americans would enroll in such a plan.
The president said he would not support a bill that increases the deficit or uses money from the Medicare trust fund to underwrite health care reform. He said the plan's $900 billion cost over 10 years would be met primarily by cutting waste in the present health-care system.
Obama also took issue with what he described as "scare tactics," saying, "[T]he time for bickering is over. The time for games has passed."
He called the charge his plan would establish bureaucratic panels with the "power to kill off" seniors "a lie, plain and simple." Obama said the allegation his plan would provide coverage for illegal immigrants is untrue. He also said, "[U]nder our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions, and federal conscience laws will remain in place."
The president's 47-minute speech did not persuade Republicans in Congress and most pro-life advocates, based on their reactions.
Southern Baptist public policy specialist Richard Land said Obama was unconvincing on the abortion-funding problem and may not have helped himself by his approach.
"I found the tone of the president's speech startlingly combative for a presidential address to a joint session of Congress," said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). "It had more of the tone of a campaign speech by a presidential candidate rather than a president of the United States addressing Congress. I fear that tone will make health-care reform more difficult rather than less.
"There are deep and substantive policy differences among the various, competing solutions that have been proposed to reform health care," Land told Baptist Press. "It is neither fair nor helpful for the president to dismiss those who disagree with him as not wanting to reform health care. There are numerous alternative approaches to the president's that would address significant issues in our health care delivery system in America. These should be debated constructively and without name-calling."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R.-Okla., an obstetrician-gynecologist, also expressed concern about Obama's approach, saying the plans already approved by House and Senate committees do not match the plan he presented in the speech.
"If the president means what he says, he needs to tell House [of Representatives] and Senate Democrats to start over," Coburn said in a written statement. "Both the House and Senate bills do, in fact, set the stage for health-care rationing, taxpayer-funded abortion and a government takeover of the health-care system. Suggesting that these radical provisions are the result of scare tactics or spin, rather than the decisions of committee leaders, is counterproductive."
Coburn also said independent studies had estimated a public option could result in more than 100 million people losing their private health insurance.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California predicted after the speech her chamber would pass legislation this year, saying, "Those who oppose reform and support the status quo are only helping to bankrupt our economy and middle-class families."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he hoped to have a bill approved by Thanksgiving, according to Congressional Quarterly.
House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana said the president "delivered one more speech about the same bad plan. The president missed a historic opportunity to demonstrate that Washington, D.C., can listen to the American people and work together to confront the challenges facing our families and businesses."
Though Obama presented his proposal as a new plan, most pro-lifers did not react to his assurance on abortion funding as if they expected a new version without the troubling provision in the House bill that explicitly authorizes funding for elective abortions. Obama previously has denied the House bill would underwrite abortions, but pro-life organizations have said the president has misrepresented the legislation. Committees in both the House and Senate rejected efforts to exclude abortion funding from health care legislation.
Douglas Johnson, longtime legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, told BP he is "sure that the Democratic leadership will get in the backroom and tweak the bill in some respects, but we have no indication that they are prepared to accept language that would prevent the public plan from covering elective abortions or prevent the federal premium subsidies from going to private plans that pay for abortions. Everything that they're putting out is to the contrary. Just as a hypothetical, if they do reach the conclusion at some point that they should do that, all they have to do is accept the Stupak amendment."
At a Sept. 10 news conference, Rep. Joe Pitts, R.-Pa., confirmed that he and Rep. Bart Stupak, D.-Mich., would seek to gain a floor vote on an amendment to prevent abortion funding under the leading House bill, H.R. 3200. Stupak and Pitts promoted two amendments in the House Energy and Commerce Committee to exclude abortion funding from the bill, but both were narrowly defeated.
Land told BP, "The president is simply not credible when he says there are no plans to cover abortion in the Democrats' proposed health-care reforms. Tonsillectomies and appendectomies are not specifically mentioned in the legislation either, but they are covered.
"If it is not intended that abortion be covered as a basic service, then why have Representative [Henry] Waxman [of California] and Speaker Pelosi fought like tigers to defeat proposals by pro-life Democrats and Republicans in committee to specifically exclude abortion as a covered procedure?" Land asked. "If it's not covered, then why twist arms and make threats to stop its specific exclusion?"
At least two advocates for removing abortion coverage took Obama's speech as a signal he had addressed such concerns.
Richard Doerflinger, associate director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a written release he welcomed Obama's "commitment to exclude federal funding of abortion, and to maintain existing federal laws protecting conscience rights in health care."
Evangelical left leader Jim Wallis of Sojourners said in a written statement the president gave the "public commitment tonight" Wallis was seeking on abortion funding and conscience laws.
Concerned Women for America President Wendy Wright said Obama could keep his promise by changing the legislation.
"If it won't use taxpayer funds for abortion -- put it in writing in the bill," she said in a written statement. "If it will protect doctors from violating their conscience by forcing them to commit abortions, put it in clear, no-nonsense language in the bill."
In a nine-page analysis released in early August, the ERLC not only said the House bill would authorize abortion funding but said the legislation approved by three committees "will lead to diminished health care for most Americans, less choice, higher taxes and unprecedented government intrusion into every level and aspect of society, from business, to education, to marriage, to individual liberty."
The ELRC analysis is available online at www.erlc.com.
Land joined other radio talk show hosts Sept. 9 in presenting to members of Congress a petition signed by more than 1.3 million Americans opposed to the Democrats' health-care legislation.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. For a Q&A about abortion and the health care bill, visit www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=31123