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Obama Tells Congress to Stop Bickering

Updated at 11:45 p.m. ET

Speaking before a special joint session of Congress this evening, President Obama laid out to legislators and the American people his goals for health care reform -- goals that he says incorporate both Democratic and Republican ideas.

After a tedious summer in which the dialogue surrounding health care reform spun out of the president's control, Mr. Obama gave his address tonight in an attempt to clarify his priorities and set the legislative process back on track.

Health care reform, the president said, should meet three basic goals: more security and stability for those with health insurance, access to insurance for those who do not have it, and ways to slow the growth of health care costs. (Read the president's full remarks here.)

"The time for bickering is over," Mr. Obama said. "Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care." Special Report: Health Care

The president told the Congress he continues to seek common ground -- but he issued a warning to opponents of his plan who have used lies and exaggerations to fight it.

"My door is always open," he said. "But know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it... If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now."

Mr. Obama said Americans have grown nervous about reform because of misinformation. He alluded to claims from former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin that his plan would establish "death panels."

"The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens," he said. "Such a charge would be laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple."

The president also disputed claims that illegal immigrants would be covered under his plan, that federal dollars would be used to fund abortions, or that his plan amounts to a "government takeover" of health care.

His comments elicited a rowdy response from the Congress, with South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouting "You lie!" after Mr. Obama said no illegal immigrants would be covered. (Watch Congress jeer the president during his speech.)

Wilson later released a statement apologizing for his behavior.

The president also spurred some laughter from the Congress when he said, "While there remain some significant details to be ironed out, I believe a broad consensus exists" on many aspects of reform.

As for the most contentious issue, a government-sponsored health insurance plan, or "public option," the president said it "is only a means to that end - and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal" of ending insurance company abuses and making coverage affordable.

He insisted, though, that it would be an effective means of keeping the private market in check, "the same way public colleges and universities provide additional choice and competition to students without in any way inhibiting a vibrant system of private colleges and universities." (Watch President Obama's remarks on the public option.)

"It's worth noting that a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option of the sort I've proposed tonight," Mr. Obama said. "But its impact shouldn't be exaggerated... It is only one part of my plan, and should not be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles."

He stressed that a public option would be optional - with less than 5 percent of Americans estimated to sign up - and would be on a level playing field with private companies.

CBS News' Chief Washington Correspondent Bob Schieffer said that Mr. Obama may have been signaling to Democrats that they should forgo the public option.

"He was saying to the liberals in his own party, 'Look, we're not going to get this public, government-run insurance program that you're insisting on, but there are a lot of things that we can get done, very significant things," Schieffer said. "He is saying, 'Don't miss the forest for the trees here.'" (Watch more of Schieffer's analysis.)

Mr. Obama said alternatives such as nonprofit cooperatives are worth exploring.

"But I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice," he said. "And I will make sure that no government bureaucrat or insurance company bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need."

Full coverage of the president's speech on health care:

Obama Tells Congress to Stop Bickering
Full Video Full Transcript Speech Highlights
GOP Response: "It's Time to Start Over"
Marc Ambinder: Will Obama's Sales Job Work?
Mark Knoller: Obama Willing to Compromise - Up to a Point
Was Obama Clear on the Public Option?
Ted Kennedy's Letter to Obama
Rep. Wilson Swipes the Spotlight
Analysis: The Road Ahead for Health Care

The president noted that it has been nearly a century since the federal government first called for health care reform under former President Theodore Roosevelt.

"I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last," he said.

Mr. Obama said that the stalled debate has brought the country to a breaking point, with soaring health care costs burdening many Americans with extraordinary financial hardship.

"These are not primarily people on welfare," he said. "These are middle-class Americans."

The president said his proposals would cost around $900 billion over 10 years -- "less than we have spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and less than the tax cuts for the wealthiest few Americans that Congress passed at the beginning of the previous administration," he said.

The president repeated his common mantra that under his plan, no one who currently has health insurance will be required to change their coverage or their doctor.

"Let me repeat this: nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have," he said.

The plan, Mr. Obama said, will prohibit insurance companies from denying consumers coverage because of pre-existing conditions. It will also prohibit rescission, the practice of dropping customers' coverage after they get sick, along with caps on coverage. It will limit out-of-pocket expenses. Insurance companies would be required to cover routine checkups and preventive care.

"That makes sense, it saves money, and it saves lives," he said.

The president argued for the creation of a health insurance exchange to keep people insured, even if they lose their job or decide to start a business. He also advocated a mandate for all Americans to acquire insurance and tax credits for those who cannot afford coverage. (Watch the president call for an individual mandate.)

To prove he is serious about keeping his plan deficit neutral, the president called for a provision to require more spending cuts if the savings promised do not materialize.

"Part of the reason I faced a trillion dollar deficit when I walked in the door of the White House is because too many initiatives over the last decade were not paid for - from the Iraq War to tax breaks for the wealthy," the president said to great applause from Democrats and some Republicans. "I will not make that same mistake with health care." (Watch President Obama talk about paying for his plan.)

Taking aim at Republicans who have railed against potential Medicare cuts, Mr. Obama addressed seniors directly.

"Don't pay attention to those scary stories about how your benefits will be cut - especially since some of the same folks who are spreading these tall tales have fought against Medicare in the past," he said, "and just this year supported a budget that would have essentially turned Medicare into a privatized voucher program. That will never happen on my watch. I will protect Medicare."

He said however, that reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid would pay for most of this plan, with the remainder of the costs covered by fees on drug and insurance companies.

In the Republican response to President Obama's address, Rep. Charles Boustany criticized the president's plan to pare down Medicare costs.

"It cuts Medicare by $500 billion, while doing virtually nothing to make the program better for our seniors," he said. (Read the Republican response to President Obama's speech.)

Mr. Obama also acknowledged Republican support for medical malpractice reform. He said he is directing the Secretary of Health and Human Services to move forward on a Bush administration initiative to test the issue.

"I don't believe malpractice reform is a silver bullet, but I have talked to enough doctors to know that defensive medicine may be contributing to unnecessary costs," he said.

To cap off his nearly 5,500-word speech, the president evoked the spirit of health care reform champion Sen. Ted Kennedy. He said the senator sent him a letter that the president was instructed to open after Kennedy's death.

"He expressed confidence that this would be the year that health care reform - 'that great unfinished business of our society,' he called it - would finally pass," Mr. Obama revealed. "'What we face,' he wrote, 'is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.'" (Watch President Obama talk about the letter from Kennedy)

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