LARGO, Md. -- Speaking bluntly to a friendly crowd of community college students Thursday, President Barack Obama said he will not back down on the nation's new health care law, even though Republicans are trying to "blackmail" him into making concessions.
In an impassioned speech five days before Americans will get their first chance to sign up for individual coverage under the Affordable Care Act, the president noted that GOP opposition is becoming stronger as the open-enrollment period approaches.
"All this would be funny if it wasn't so crazy," Mr. Obama told a crowd of about 1,000 at Prince George's Community College. "A lot of it is just hot air. A lot of it is politics."
Even as he spoke, Republicans in Congress were making last-ditch efforts to undermine provisions of the administration's signature domestic policy, saying it's a dangerous law that impedes individual liberty and will cost jobs.
The president, meanwhile, said Republican rhetoric is sounding increasingly desperate as implementation of the law gets closer.
The opposition has culminated in a threat to stop funding the government and force a debt default if Democrats insist on full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare.
Thursday, House Republicans added new demands for tax changes, energy deregulation, tort reform and more in exchange for raising the debt ceiling.
Mr. Obama told the community college audience that he will not negotiate.
"No Congress before this one has ever, ever in history been irresponsible enough to threaten an economic shutdown -- to suggest America not pay its bills -- just to try to blackmail a president into giving them some concessions," the president said during the campaign-style rally in the college gymnasium.
Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., had harsher words for Republicans behind the shutdown threat.
"To say it's outrageous doesn't begin to convey the depth of the insult to the American people," he said Thursday afternoon during a conference call with Pennsylvania reporters.
Still, he acknowledged there are "plenty of Americans" who have concerns about the Affordable Care Act and want to change it.
"Many of them encourage further debate on health care. What they don't want to happen is have accommodations made for an extreme wing of one party ... so they can look good to some base of theirs from whom they raise money and get political support," Mr. Casey said.
Earlier, on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., characterized the president as a pitchman trying to sell a skeptical public on a bad deal.
"Americans aren't buying the spin," he said.
"Small business owners want to know how they're ever, ever going to comply with more than 20,000 pages of regulations. They want to know how they're going to be able to keep their employees insured, work forces growing, businesses expanding and -- far too often -- their doors open once this law comes online," Mr. McConnell said.
He was referring to portions of the act that eventually will require businesses with more than 50 employees to offer health insurance or pay penalties.
"I hope some of my Democrat friends who voted for this law will look themselves in the mirror and think -- truly think -- about whether protecting the president's pride is more important than helping the American people," Mr. McConnell said. "We can do better than this."
Meanwhile, in Prince George's gymnasium, the president assured that his plan is "here to stay."
Until now, insurance was unaffordable for tens of millions of Americans whose employers didn't offer that benefit, Mr. Obama said. For many of them, premiums were out of reach in the individual market -- if they could find coverage at all from insurers who rejected them because of pre-existing conditions, he said.
Under the Affordable Care Act, insurers must cover pre-existing conditions and cannot cap benefits, he said.
Opponents of the health law say the government shouldn't require individuals to buy health insurance or employers to provide it, but the president said the system only works when everyone participates.
"The reason ... is when uninsured people can afford to buy insurance and don't and then they get sick or they get hit by a car and show up in an emergency room, who do you think pays for that?" Mr. Obama asked. "You do -- in the form of higher premiums, because hospitals have to get their money back somehow so [insurance companies] jack up premiums on people who have health insurance."
He acknowledged that there's a price: "The wealthiest Americans -- families who make more than $250,000 a year -- will have to pay a little bit more. Extremely costly health insurance plans will no longer qualify for unlimited tax breaks. And most people who can afford health insurance now have to take responsibility to buy health insurance or pay a penalty," he said.
Those are the parts Republicans don't like, but they are necessary to make health care more widely available to those who need it, he said.
"You would think that would not be so controversial," Mr. Obama said. "You would think people would say 'OK, let's go ahead and let's do this so everybody has insurance coverage.' "
Earlier, Democratic members of the Maryland congressional delegation warmed up the crowd for the president, telling them that the opening of the exchanges on Tuesday is one important step on the journey, but the work must continue.
"We have much to do in order to ensure that the Affordable Care Act works as intended, that it increases access to quality affordable coverage and that it puts families -- not insurance companies -- in charge of health care decisions," House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer told the crowd at the campaign-style rally.
Rep. Donna F. Edwards urged attendees to enroll in a coverage plan.
"You sign up to get health care. You sign up because we want you to be healthy. You sign up because it's the right thing to do; it's the right thing to do for your families," she said.
Some in the crowd knew little about the Affordable Care Act even though it has been front-page news for days.
Computer science student Vance Payne, 23, said he has seen protesters in Washington, D.C., decry the provisions requiring virtually everyone to buy health insurance, but he hasn't paid much attention.
He said he needs more details about how much coverage will cost. Rates -- as well as information about government subsidies -- will be available starting Tuesday at www.healthcare.gov.
"Everybody needs insurance," he said, "but if they can't afford it, it's a tough call."
Criminal justice student Najee Thompson has been paying closer attention to the protracted health care debate. He's been following Republicans' attempts to defund it and Democrats' efforts to fight back.
"When I first heard about it, I was kind of shaky about it. Everybody needs to have health care, but you have to wonder how people will afford it" even with government subsidies to help, Mr. Thompson said. "Being 21, it's hard enough to keep up with bills and pay for college."
Nearby in the crowd, Brittani Brown said the Affordable Care Act is already helping her. At 23, the recent University of Maryland graduate is now able to stay on her parents' insurance plan.
The health care act is helping others, too, she said.
"Obviously, people need help, and we can debate what to do but at the end of the day we need to come together," she said.
Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets. First Published September 27, 2013 4:00 AM