President Barack Obama remained on the offensive Tuesday on the pace and shape of legislation reinventing health care, against stiffening opposition from Republicans and growing wariness among rank-and-file congressional Democrats.
Following a recent pattern, harsh public exchanges ricocheted along Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol amid laborious work on the measure that Obama has insisted be put together before Congress leaves in August for its recess — a timetable a House Democratic leader indicated was slipping.
Entering a closed-door Democratic meeting, House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., told another lawmaker: "No one wants to tell the Speaker (Nancy Pelosi) that she's moving too fast and they damn sure don't want to tell the president."
Rangel's panel finished its portion of the House bill last week.
Obama stepped once more before the cameras at the White House to say strides have been made. At the same time, he repeated that the sticker shock that critics keep citing will be worse in the absence of an overhaul and exhorted Washington to "insist that this time it will be different."
Obama's challenge was evident, even in his own party.
"Members have concerns, and they're not just Blue Dogs," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters, referring to a group of conservative Democrats. "I want to make it very clear that there's progressives, Blue Dogs and everybody in between who have expressed concerns and we're working on that."
Hoyer raised the prospect of delaying passage of a bill after Congress' August recess.
"If we can get to consensus we're going to move. If we can't get to consensus we're going to continue to work on creating consensus," he said.
House Democrats, who face re-election next year, fear voting for a health care bill with tax increases — and no guarantees that the Senate will complete its legislation or any measure will become law.
"The danger is pretty clear," said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.
Republicans hewed to the emerging message: It's too expensive and it's all happening too fast.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky argued that a rapid-fire approach carries pitfalls similar to ones he said have adversely affected a $787 billion economic stimulus package. "Health care reform is too important to rush through and get wrong," McConnell argued in a floor speech.
Said Obama: "The American people understand that the status quo is unacceptable."
Beyond the talking points cascading through the capital, Obama met Tuesday with the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the moderate to conservative panel Democrats who have balked over the $1.5 trillion, 10-year House bill.
The bill would, for the first time, require all individuals to have health insurance and all employers to provide it. The poor would get subsidies to buy insurance and insurers would be barred from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.
The Energy and Commerce Committee is the last of three in the House to write legislation that among other things would spread the health care coverage umbrella over the roughly 50 million people who don't now have that protection.
"They don't care who's up or who's down politically in Washington," the president said. "They care about what's going on in their own lives. They don't care about the latest line of political attack. They care about whether their families will be crushed by rising premiums."
Obama took the unusual step of inviting the director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to the White House Monday to discuss health care costs. Doug Elmendorf made big news — and dealt a major setback to Obama's push for overhaul — last week when he said that the legislation pending in Congress would not reduce health care costs.
Elmendorf, who held jobs in the Clinton administration, is responsible for giving independent information to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
At a crucial moment in the health care discussions, Obama's comments Tuesday did not contain new details or arguments. He tried to keep up the momentum by emphasizing the positive — the broad areas of agreement so far — as opposed to the differences and obstacles that threaten to derail or postpone the effort.
He's trying to stay in front of the mounting debate on health care reform by offering statements and doing interviews nearly by the day. He plans a prime-time news conference Wednesday and a town hall in Ohio on Thursday.
Obama remains noncommittal on a surtax to pay for the overhaul, which some experts have said could cost over $1 trillion in the next several years to reconstitute and incorporate some 46 million uninsured into the system. In the NBC interview, he did reiterate his opposition to taxing people's employer-provided health benefits, however.
Obama has said that people making over $250,000 a year should have to pay more, and he defended his insistence on getting a bill from lawmakers before they leave next month.