Saturday, February 27, 2010
Obama steps up pressure on healthcare reform
Tens of millions of individuals and small business in the United States are being denied affordable and adequate health insurance cover and they cannot wait any longer, President Obama said in his weekly address on Saturday.
In a clear indication of his administration’s intention to step up the pressure on Republicans in the aftermath of last Thursday’s bipartisan healthcare summit, Mr. Obama said, “No final bill will include everything that everyone wants. That’s what compromise is”.
A bipartisan meeting on healthcare reform last week failed to improve the prospects of Congress passing a comprehensive bill. Since then there has been a growing probability that the Democrats may get their proposals passed through reconciliation, a legislative procedure that bypasses the requirement of a 60-seat supermajority.
Alluding to victories in the Winter Olympics by U.S. athletes such as Lindsey Voh, Apolo Ohno and the men’s hockey team, Mr. Obama argued that to compete on the world stage as well as the U.S. did in Vancouver, Congress would have to find common ground on healthcare reform.
“We need to move past the bickering and the game-playing that holds us back and blocks progress for the American people,” he said.
Mr. Obama reiterated that Thursday’s caucus yielded both areas of agreement as well as differences across party lines. The common ground found so far included the rising cost of healthcare, the need for access to an insurance marketplace and pooling of purchasing power.
Reflecting on some of the more bipartisan suggestions coming from the Republican side, he said, “I heard some ideas from our Republican friends that I believe are very worthy of consideration”.
Yet there is a serious divergence of opinions on some critical issues, including whether insurance companies should be held accountable when they deny people care or arbitrarily raise premiums, and on giving tax credits to small businesses and individuals.
Emphasising the impact of such credits on the ordinary American he said, “This would be the largest middle class tax cut for health care in history, and I believe we should do it.”
Co-operate or else
While Mr. Obama said he was willing to move forward with members of both parties on health care if the Republicans were serious about coming together to resolve differences, he also warned that he would be unwilling to wait much longer to get a bill passed.
“The tens of millions of men and women who cannot afford their health insurance cannot wait another generation for us to act. Small businesses [and] Americans with pre-existing conditions cannot wait,” he urged.
Obama’s Social Secretary quits over Manmohan dinner gatecrash
Desiree Rogers, White House Social Secretary announced her resignation on Friday following her embroilment in the gate-crashing controversy during Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s state visit in November 2009.
In a reported statement on her resignation Ms. Rogers said, “As we turn the corner on the first year this is a good time for me to explore opportunities in the corporate world.” Robert Gibbs, White House Press Secretary, said that she was not asked to leave the job.
Ms. Rogers, who has a Harvard MBA and left behind a corporate career in Chicago to join the White House in January 2009, was noted as much for her flair for fashion as for infusing a sense of openness into an institution that has not been known for its accessibility to the American public.
However in November, during Mr. Singh’s state visit to Washington, Ms. Rogers was initially held responsible for failing to prevent Virginians Tareq and Michaele Salahi, and a third uninvited person, from breaching White House security and attending the dinner.
On earlier occasions one member of the Social Secretary’s office would be charged with the responsibility of checking, along with the Secret Service, the identities of guests entering the White House.
In November, however, Ms. Rogers attended the state dinner as a guest and after the incident was seen as having neglected the more mundane duties of her role. While she was never officially charged with negligence, reports quoted an administration official saying “Once the state dinner deal went down, people who had other political agendas started micromanaging every part of her business.”
While this may be the end of Ms. Rogers’ involvement in the White House, her legacy may well outlive her tenure. She was not only the first African-American Social Secretary, but she was also credited with organising “hundreds of fun and creative events during her time here”, according to the Obamas.
The President and First Lady acknowledged her service to the White House for over a year saying, “We are enormously grateful to Desiree Rogers for the terrific job she’s done as the White House Social Secretary. When she took this position, we asked Desiree to help make sure that the White House truly is the People’s House, and she did that by welcoming scores of everyday Americans through its doors, from wounded warriors to local schoolchildren to NASCAR drivers.”
Friday, February 26, 2010
Bipartisan nod eludes Obama
Washington: U.S. President Barack Obama hosted a rare televised bipartisan meeting at the Blair House in Washington DC on Thursday in a last-ditch attempt to bring Republicans on board in the deadlocked healthcare debate.
Opening the summit with an exhortation to stay focused on areas of agreement, Mr. Obama said: “I was very pleased to see a glimpse of bipartisanship in the Senate recently in passing a jobs bill, and I hope that continues.”
Yet the debate that ensued was far from smooth sailing for the President and attending Democrats. Republican Senators and Congressmen vigorously challenged the latest reform proposal Mr. Obama unveiled earlier in the week, including cost control, insurance reform, deficit control and expanding coverage.
If Mr. Obama had any hopes that a genuine bipartisan agreement could be hammered out during the seven-hour session, it must have evaporated within the first hour.
Beginning with Senator Lamar Alexander, who argued that comprehensive bills would not work and that Republicans would not be presenting their own comprehensive bill, the debate returned periodically to points of partisan disagreement.
Republicans took issue with the Democratic plan for instituting insurance exchanges driven by mandates (such as penalties for not buying into a policy). While agreeing that competition and diversity were desirable, Congressman Paul Ryan suggested that federalising the regulation of insurance through mandates would not encourage competition and lower costs but only more decentralisation would.
Mr. Obama, while acknowledging that this was a point of “philosophical” importance, rebutted that mandates were necessary to avoid a situation where pools of older, sicker insurance buyers were slapped with higher premiums while younger, more healthy pools paid significantly less.
Mr. Obama stressed the deficit-neutral nature of the reform — and he was pushed to do so given the suggestions by Mr. Alexander that under the proposed bill premiums would actually rise. Interrupting the Senator in a testy exchange, the President cited the figures of the non-partisan scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office. According to the CBO, of those individually insured, 57 per cent will see their premiums go down and 43 per cent will see their premiums go up. Of those insured by companies, all of them would see their premiums either stay the same or reduce.
The Republican insistence on a step-by-step approach and starting from scratch would not work, said Mr. Obama. “Baby steps don't get you to the place where people need you to go. We can't solve the pre-existing condition problem if we don't do something about coverage.”
Giving the Republicans a month or six weeks to find common ground with the Democrats, Mr. Obama implied that reform would have to be enacted and financed with or without Republican support.
The real, if slender, hope for a bipartisan bill rests on the few areas of agreement that were fleshed out during the discussion.
These include the need for regulation of insurance markets, the need for insurance exchanges and inter-state insurance, medical malpractice liability reform and curbing of fraud and wastage within the extant system.
If Republican support is not forthcoming, Democrats would likely use reconciliation, a legislative procedure infrequently invoked but simplifying the passage of bills into law on the basis of a simple majority of 51 votes.
While the move may be unpopular and Republicans would likely seize upon it as the “tyranny of the majority”, it would nevertheless permit the Democrats to claim a victory for their top priority of 2009 and move on to tackling the looming crisis of unemployment.
Friday, February 12, 2010
Return to bipartisanship
From The Hindu
Bipartisanship, abandoned in the United States Congress over the last one year, may soon re-emerge. There have been several signs of a new, less rancorous style of American politics making its appearance this year. Last month saw a president-endorsed proposal come up for a bipartisan Senate commission to tackle the worrisome question of how to reduce the spiralling federal deficit. Though many senior Republicans were on board, the proposal did not survive the Senate vote that could have given it life. However in a rare departure from their usual lockstep voting pattern against contentious Democratic bills, 16 Republicans voted in favour of establishing the commission. Further, President Obama’s recent announcement of a bipartisan caucus on healthcare reform may portend an era of more consensual politics. While the discussants are likely to remain polarised on key dimensions of the legislation, the very act of meeting gives the reform effort a fighting chance through what Mr. Obama plainly described as “give-and-take.”
There are two factors hastening the return of bipartisan discourse in Washington. First, the stunning loss of the Massachusetts seat and the prospect of further Congressional defeats in November this year have compelled Mr. Obama to make serious efforts to bring the Republicans on board. He has good reason to do so — the “blanket hold” that Republican Senator Richard Shelby placed on 70-odd executive appointments (until $40 billion federal earmarks favouring his state were agreed) was a flagrant display of opportunism that may well become more recurrent. The reality is that the Obama administration is negotiating a complex matrix of policy goals — including job creation and economic recovery, deficit management, healthcare reform and several difficult areas of U.S. foreign policy engagement — and he needs a measure of Republican support to achieve this. Secondly, it is hardly surprising that the Republicans, still lacking strong leadership and a workable alternative to the Democratic agenda, are fixating on sound-byte-rich subjects such as healthcare reform and the deficit. Given the frustrations of sitting in opposition during a year when far-reaching policies were enacted, they will have to choose between sharing some of the responsibility of governing through bipartisan engagement and risking the charge of obstructionism via unnecessary filibuster. Under these circumstances, the President would do well to nurture the still-nascent initiative of reaching out across party lines, thus preventing partisan bitterness from bringing the legislative and executive processes to their knees.
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