WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama warned Thursday that if Congress does not deliver U.S. health care legislation by the end of the year the opportunity will be lost, a plea to political supporters to pressure lawmakers to act.
"If we don't get it done this year, we're not going to get it done," Obama told supporters by phone as he flew home on Air Force One from a West Coast fundraising trip.
Obama's political organization, Organizing for America, invited campaign volunteers to a midday conference call to describe a June 6 kickoff for its health care campaign. The president's message to his re-election campaign-in-waiting was simple: If volunteers don't pressure lawmakers to support the White House's goal on health care, Washington would drag its feet and nothing would change.
The United States is alone among major industrialized countries in not having a government run health system. An estimated 50 million Americans do not have health insurance.
"The election in November, it didn't bring about change. It gave us an opportunity for change," Obama said.
The presidential plea came as lawmakers prepare for an aggressive schedule of work aimed at producing comprehensive health care overhaul bills in the House and Senate by August.
Committee hearings — and soon thereafter votes — will start next week, as soon as lawmakers return to Washington from a weeklong recess. Many members of Congress spent the break holding town hall meetings and other forums with their constituents about health care, even as opponents and supporters of Obama's plans ramped up television and radio ads for and against.
"I think the status quo is unacceptable and that we've got to get it done this year," Obama repeated, pumping up his supporters for a door-to-door and phone-to-phone canvass similar to his presidential campaign.
Obama's top aides, including former campaign manager David Plouffe, told the supporters that they have a challenge ahead of them.
"If the country stands with the president and if the country is demanding health care reform than we'll get it done; Washington will not have any option but to follow us," Plouffe said on the call, which was not announced on the White House's official schedule.
The president's conversation with his supporters was part pep talk and part a nod to political reality. Obama is looking to use his network of supporters to deliver a campaign promise, and if he seeks a second term in 2012 — an almost certainty — he hopes to keep many of those volunteers engaged in person and online.
The president said the costs of the nation's $2.5 trillion health care system are crushing families and businesses and pose the largest threat to the economy.
The White House is leaving it to lawmakers to work out the details of a health care plan, but Obama has said it should ensure choice and lower costs, while extending coverage to the 50 million Americans now uninsured. The cost of accomplishing that has been estimated around $1.5 trillion, and figuring out how to pay is emerging as a major challenge for Congress and the White House.
The Republican National Committee said Obama's approach was not the right path, arguing that Democrats are pushing for a government-run health care system that will take away individual choice.