WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama said on Wednesday a broad healthcare overhaul was critical to a U.S. economic recovery and urged Congress to take advantage of momentum behind the reform package, despite doubts about the plan even among fellow Democrats.
In a televised evening news conference, Obama said the biggest driving force behind the federal deficit was skyrocketing healthcare costs for the government's Medicare program of healthcare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor.
If we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit, he said after another day when leaders in Congress struggled to find common ground on the cost and scope of a healthcare plan, Obama's top legislative priority.
Hopes dimmed in Congress that lawmakers could meet Obama's goal of passing early versions by the August summer recess, but Obama said the stars were aligned to win the plan this year and appealed to congressional leaders to help Americans facing higher insurance premiums or lacking insurance.
We are now seeing broad agreement thanks to the work that was done over the last few days. So even though we still have a few issues to work out, what's remarkable at this point is not how far we have left to go -- it's how far we have already come, he said.
But the measure faces opposition from many sides, with a group of fiscally conservative Democrats saying it remained stalled because there is no information on how it will save the government money on healthcare or be paid for.
Liberal Democrats have said they are concerned it would not do enough and Republicans, seeing a chance to deal a stinging blow to Obama and Democrats, blasted the $1 trillion-plus price tag.
If they try to fix our healthcare system like they've tried to rescue our economy, I think we're in really, really big trouble, said House Republican Leader John Boehner.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said panel members meeting behind closed doors to negotiate a bipartisan agreement were making progress, but Republican Senator Orrin Hatch dropped out of the talks and said he would not support the bill as it now stands.
It's going to take time, but we'll get there, Baucus said.
Obama had stepped up his involvement, meeting with rebellious House of Representatives Democrats at the White House on Tuesday and scheduling healthcare events throughout the week, topped by the nationally televised news conference.
The overhaul is designed to create a government-run insurance program to compete with private insurers, expand coverage to most of the 46 million uninsured Americans and hold down soaring healthcare costs that are rising faster than inflation.
The American Medical Association affirmed its support for Obama's broad healthcare overhaul goals, saying the status quo is unacceptable. It also has the support of pharmaceutical manufacturers and many hospitals.
But the details have proven difficult for lawmakers to nail down, and a series of opinion polls show Obama's approval rating dipping and his support on the healthcare issue falling to below 50 percent in a Washington Post poll.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said there were enough votes to pass the bill in the House, but she did not give a firm timetable for a vote. Boehner questioned her vote count.
I'm not quite sure she knows whether she has the votes or not, he said.
'LONG WAY TO GO'
The August deadline for passing versions in each chamber of Congress was endangered by the lengthy negotiations, and Republicans pushed hard for a delay. Obama wants the first versions of the bills passed before the monthlong break to keep opposition from building during the recess.
Obama said while he wanted the bill this year, he would not sign legislation that worsened the deficit, did not cover the uninsured or slow the growth in healthcare costs that are breaking American families' budgets.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee canceled a planned drafting session for the second consecutive day on Wednesday in order to work with the fiscally conservative Democrats on the committee known as Blue Dogs, who could scuttle the bill.
Just before Obama was to speak, the leader of the group, Representative Mike Ross, said no final action was likely Thursday.
Another panel, the House Ways and Means Committee, met to discuss taxes and other issues in its version of the bill. Its plan to add a tax on the wealthy, to raise about $544 billion over 10 years, has come under fire.
But Obama said setting the tax on couples making more than $1 million a year would meet his principles to fund healthcare without hurting the middle class.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee, meanwhile, searched for more ways to save money in the Medicaid health program for the poor, said Senator Kent Conrad.
The more savings lawmakers can wring from existing health programs, the less new revenue they will need to raise.
Senator Olympia Snowe, a crucial Republican swing vote, said the senators negotiating the committee's package want to make sure the insurance coverage provided through a proposed exchange program would be affordable.
The proposed state insurance exchanges would operate as a clearinghouse where individuals without employer sponsored health insurance and small businesses, with up to 50 employees, could shop for medical coverage plans.
(Additional reporting by Jackie Frank, Donna Smith, Kim Dixon and Tabassum Zakaria; editing by Chris Wilson)