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Health-care debate heads West

Civil exchanges, skepticism at Obama forum in Montana

President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting on health-care reform Friday in Belgrade, Mont.
President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting on health-care reform Friday in Belgrade, Mont.
Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

BELGRADE, Mont. — The moment seemed to capture the grand tradition of democratic town hall meetings.

A man named Randy Rathie stood up at an event on Friday and put President Barack Obama on the spot with a pointed though polite question. Obama responded in an equally courteous fashion.

"You can't tell us how you're going to pay for this," Rathie said of Obama's health care overhaul. "The only way you're going to get that money is raise our taxes."

"You are absolutely right," Obama said. "I can't cover another 46 million people for free. I can't do that. We're going to have to find money from somewhere." He has proposed higher taxes for families earning more than $250,000 a year and said there were also other ways to find money, including streamlining the system and eliminating what he said were subsidies to insurance companies.

"But your point is well-taken," Obama added. "I appreciate your question and the respectful way you asked it."

Later, Rathie told CNN he was "well-impressed" with Obama's response. "Now he's given me his word, personally, that he's not going to raise my taxes," Rathie said, but at the same time, "they're trying to put in a program that they don't even understand."

It was a civil exchange between a single citizen and his nation's leader over an issue that enflames passions — and it was a marked contrast to the vitriol from opponents that has marked town hall events held by Democratic lawmakers across the country.

In general, Obama's health care events have been far less contentious than those held by his allies in what's become an increasingly noisy partisan debate. Lawmakers have been shouted down by conservative activists and Obama opponents arguing that proposals in Congress are too costly to taxpayers and too intrusive in their lives.

But this event in a suburb of Bozeman was the second respectful question-and-answer session for Obama this week. He'll face more questioners today in Grand Junction, Colo.

Perhaps people are less willing to attack the president to his face out of respect for the office that he holds. Perhaps conservative activists are less inclined to rally their troops against such a popular president out of fear of backlash. Perhaps congressmen and senators are easier targets for jeers, rants and catcalls.

Whatever the reason, Obama seemed pleased with the decorum at his latest of his own town hall-style events and denounced news media emphasis on angry protesters at others.

Tieless and rolling up his sleeves in campaign mode, Obama pitched his overhaul plan to a crowd in an airport hangar and didn't deny that there have been outbursts by foes of his plan at town halls featuring Democratic lawmakers this month. But he said that was hardly the whole story.

"TV loves a ruckus," Obama said. "What you haven't seen on TV and what makes me proud are the many constructive meetings going on all over the country."

While hundreds demonstrated outside, there was no sign of protesters on the airstrip where Air Force One landed or inside the hangar.

Friday's crowd, estimated by the White House at about 1,300 people, was mostly supportive, cheering Obama frequently, though he did get a few pointed questions, including the one from Rathie.

Another participant, who said his job was selling health-insurance policies, asked Obama why he had changed his strategy from one of reaching out to insurance companies to "vilifying" them.

"My intent is not to vilify insurance companies," Obama said. "I say let's work with the existing system." But he said some bad practices of insurance companies "are tough on people" and "have to change," including such things as denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.

It's difficult, he said, to achieve true reform "unless we've got everybody covered."

The president kicked off a four-state Western push for his plan with a pointed joke: He said Montana has bears, moose and elk, and "in Washington, you just have mostly bull."

Minutes after Obama landed, a downpour began, making it difficult to hear inside the metal-roofed hangar. But the rain quickly let up. Tickets were distributed on a first-come, first-served basis to residents of Bozeman and Belgrade, with a limit of two to a family.

"I know there's been a lot of attention paid to some of the town hall meetings that are going on around the country, especially when tempers flare," Obama said.

He said less attention has been paid to the gatherings in which people "are coming together and having a civil, honest, often difficult conversation about how we can improve the system."

Obama aimed part of his pitch at Americans who already have health insurance.

"Most of us have insurance, and most of us think, knock on wood, and think: 'I'm going to stay healthy,'" Obama said.

He cited examples in which people have lost their insurance, including when going from job to job and because of pre-existing conditions.

Obama made his latest appearance as a prominent ally, John Podesta, said the high-decibel attacks are designed to destroy his presidency rather than merely defeat health care legislation.

At a breakfast with reporters in Washington, D.C., Podesta predicted such tactics would backfire on Republicans and give the president a chance to "capture the center of the debate."

Podesta, who heads the Center for American Progress and was key in last winter's presidential transition, said the time for bipartisan negotiations in the Senate is drawing to a close. When lawmakers return in September, he said, "either they have to have a deal or he (Obama) has to say 'this is what it is.'"

A close legislative ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., told WJPA-AM Radio in western Pennsylvania that Congress is going to "do it right" when it comes to passing health care legislation. But he said it's not clear how soon that will be.

There have been numerous missed deadlines. But the goal of Democratic leaders is to pass a health care bill in time for Obama to sign it this year.

Murtha said lawmakers are telling Pelosi not to rush passage.

Underscoring the fire around the issue, Obama was met in Montana by TV and print advertisements from a group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights urging opposition to a new public insurance plan supported by Obama that would compete with private insurers.

The American College of Surgeons also weighed in by criticizing comments Obama made in New Hampshire and at a news conference last month suggesting that doctors might be motivated by profit to amputate a diabetic's foot or remove a child's tonsils.

And, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele issued a statement, saying: "Americans simply aren't buying his efforts to repackage his government-run experiment."