WASHINGTON -- Emboldened by divided Democrats and polls that show rising public anxiety about President Barack Obama's handling of health care and the economy, Republicans yesterday launched an aggressive attack on the health care bills moving through Congress, comparing the legislation to what they labeled a failed economic stimulus bill.
And the news yesterday that the Obama administration would delay release of a congressionally mandated report on the nation's economic conditions only stoked the rhetoric, spawning GOP speculation that the White House is trying to avoid bad news amid the health care debate.
"The last time the president made grand promises and demanded passage of a bill before it could be reviewed, we ended up with the colossal stimulus failure and unemployment near 10 percent," Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. said yesterday.
"He insists his health-care plan won't add to our nation's deficit, despite the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office saying exactly the opposite," Mr. DeMint added. "And today, we learn that the president is refusing to release a critical report on the state of our economy, which contains facts essential to this debate. What is he hiding?"
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a speech yesterday that Mr. Obama is "conducting a dangerous experiment with our health care." He added, "He's conducting a reckless experiment with our economy."
Mr. Obama responded by resuming his public campaign for health-care reform, stumping on the issue for the third time in four days. "The need for reform is urgent, and it is indisputable," he said at Children's National Medical Center in Washington.
But later in the day, the president hinted for the first time that he would not let the August deadline become a deal-breaker. "If somebody comes to me and says, 'It's basically done; it's going to spill over by a few days or a week' -- you know, that's different," he said last night on PBS's "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."
Lacking unity on an alternative agenda to Mr. Obama's health-care plans, Republicans have instead focused on a strategy of rallying public opposition and wooing conservative Democrats in Congress, whose votes will ultimately determine the fate of any health-care bill. That plan depends in large part on Congress going on break before it votes on a bill. Yesterday, though, Republicans made clear that they see an opportunity to derail the legislation now.
The RNC started running ads blasting the Democratic proposals, and William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, yesterday implored Republicans to "go for the kill." He wrote on his magazine's blog: "We have plenty of time to work next year on sensible and targeted health reform in a bipartisan way. But first, we need to get rid of Obamacare. Now is the time to do so."
Several House Democrats in the conservative Blue Dog Coalition have already said they won't vote for the current House bill, citing the risk of raising taxes in this economic climate.
The House bill would expand insurance to 97 percent of Americans, but would add a surtax of 1 percent to 5.4 percent for families who earn more than $350,000 a year. Democrats are considering raising the surtax, so that it applies only to families making $1 million a year or more, aides to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last night.
The Office of Management and Budget's mid-year report, measuring economic growth, job creation and budget deficits, was expected later this month, but administration officials said the report would be delayed by several weeks. Officials said the hold-up is not unusual in presidential transition years, noting that former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton each published their initial budget updates weeks late.
Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., conceded that the missed deadline for the budget review is hardly unusual. But he added that the missed forecasts should cause lawmakers to slow down as they weigh health care and other major proposals. "It is unusual to try and move trillions in new spending before we have the right data to inform such major decisions," he said.
Mr. Steele, too, urged Democrats to give up on Mr. Obama's August deadline. "They want to get a bill done in the next two weeks; this reckless approach is an ill-conceived attempt to push through an experiment, and all of us should be scared to death," he said at the National Press Club. "Slow down, Mr. President."
Democrats, meanwhile, say Republicans are offering few ideas to improve the health care system. "Despite the crisis that confronts American families, the GOP continues to argue for the status quo on behalf of the special interests," said Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine, the Democratic National Committee chairman. "If we do nothing, as the Republican 'Party of NO' would have us do, we not only will ensure more of the same, but guarantee a growing crisis that will put a burden on our children that they will never overcome."
A number of Republicans have offered health-care legislation, but some would not extend health insurance to the 46 million to 47 million Americans who now don't have any, as Democrats intend. Instead, the GOP bills focus on reducing medical malpractice lawsuits, making it easier for self-employed individuals to buy health insurance and encouraging businesses to set up programs to reward employees who lose weight, stop smoking or take other steps to improve health.
While almost all House Republicans have spoken out against House Democrats' bill, a group of Senate Republicans have been meeting for months with Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., to come up with bipartisan legislation in that chamber. They include Republican Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Charles Grassley of Iowa, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Olympia Snowe of Maine. The White House is actively reaching out to them, particularly Ms. Snowe, who voted for the stimulus.
The negotiators yesterday said they were making progress on a bipartisan bill and would meet all day today to hash out provisions. But to the chagrin of White House officials, Mr. Baucus refused to commit to unveiling a completed product this week.