GREEN BAY (AP) - Surrounded by supportive citizens in the heartland, PresidentBarack Obama challenged lawmakers back in Washington who criticizehis proposed health care overhaul. "What's the alternative?" hesaid Thursday.
A dispute over Obama's desire to create a newgovernment-sponsored health plan to compete with private insurersis forming a major obstacle to bipartisan consensus on healthreform. So the president, undertaking a new and aggressive push tosee legislation enacted this year, attempted to sell that and hisother ideas on health reform directly to Americans.
He described his critics as naysayers.
"I know there are some who believe that reform is tooexpensive, but I can assure you that doing nothing will cost us farmore in the coming years," Obama said at a town-hall style meetingat a high school here. "Our deficits will be higher. Our premiumswill go up. Our wages will be lower, our jobs will be fewer, andour businesses will suffer."
The president's warnings come as reservations have beenexpressed by health care providers, Congress - led by Obama'sfellow Democrats - and the public. The brief ride from the airportto a town hall-style meeting featured a rare sight for the newpresident: a large gathering of protesters.
Signs held among the several hundred demonstrators lining hisroute said "NObama" and "No to Socialism."
Back in Washington, Republicans assailed any inclusion of apublic insurance option in a new system of expanded health care.
"We see that as a slippery slope to having the government runeverything," Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wy., said at a news conference.
But Obama said no one - "certainly not me" - is interested ina nationalized health care system, like that in Great Britain,answering a question from a woman who said she supports it. Thepresident said the government is not going to force any change uponpeople who are pleased with the plan they already have with theiremployer.
"When you hear people saying socialized medicine, understand,I don't know anybody in Washington who is proposing that," he said.
For his goal of reshaping the nation's health care system tobring down costs and extend coverage to 50 million uninsuredAmericans - an overhaul that has vexed Washington for decades -Obama has set an August deadline.
"This next 6-8 weeks is going to be critical," he told hisaudience, asking them to help pressure Congress to get it done. Ifthe country puts off health care reform, he said, "it's never goingto happen."
Senators of both parties agree on many big issues, includinggetting all Americans covered and prohibiting insurance industrypractices that deny coverage to people with health problems. Butthere remain major disagreements over how to pay for the $1.5trillion it will cost over the next decade to cover uninsuredAmericans, whether to require employers to offer coverage andwhether government-sponsored insurance should be one option.
Obama has detailed few specifics that he is for and against,and did not break any new ground on Thursday. He said he won't runroughshod over Congress with a "my way or the highway" approach andis "happy to steal other people's ideas."
The president also acknowledged that extending coverage willcost "a good deal of money at a time where we don't have extra tospend." He promised anew that he will not allow reform to add tothe deficit, and said he will propose new savings "in the days tocome" beyond those already outlined to help explain how reform willbe financed.
But, he said, that won't be enough.
"I'll be honest, even with these savings, reform will requireadditional sources of revenue," Obama said.
He proposes raising taxes on the highest-earning Americans bylimiting the value of deductions they can claim, includingcharitable donations. This idea has little backing on Capitol Hill.
Green Bay resident Laura Klitzka, a 35-year-old, marriedmother of two who has breast cancer that has now spread to herbones, introduced Obama. She carries about $12,000 in unpaidmedical bills that continue to pile up as treatment continues thatshe said her family cannot afford.
The White House considers such emotional pleas critical toselling reform. Obama's political arm, the grass-roots machineknown as Organizing for America, has collected hundreds ofthousands of similar stories that could shame lawmakers who don'tsign on.
"What we're doing right now is we're really priming the pump.I mean, we will ramp this activity up, we'll make more explicitcalls for people to call members of Congress - every member ofCongress that we can get a call into - as we approach key votes,"said Dan Grandone, a political aide who runs Obama's re-electioncampaign-in-waiting in Wisconsin.
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