WASHINGTON - Anxious to ease deepening political tensions with the states, President Barack Obama on Monday told governors that he wants to speed up their ability to enforce his signature health care law on their own terms. But his concession goes only so far: He warned he won't allow states to weaken the law.
He also told them not to vilify their own states’ public workers while struggling with spending cuts.
Hosting governors of both parties on his own turf, Obama offered them what they often request: more flexibility as they cope with painful budget dilemmas. Declaring that he would “go to bat for whatever works,” Obama supported letting states propose their own health care plans by 2014 – three years faster than the current law allows.
Yet this would be no change to the fundamental requirements of a federal law that has divided the nation and prompted about half the states to try to overturn it through lawsuits. To gain new powers, states would first have to convince Washington, D.C., that their plans would cover as many people, provide equally affordable and comprehensive care and not add to the federal deficit.
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More broadly, Obama sought to send a message – both cooperative and pointed – as leaders at all levels of government grapple with huge economic pressures. The yearly gathering of the president and the state chief executives came as budget disputes are roiling, most notably in Wisconsin, where dramatic protests have raged for days.
Calling for shared sacrifice, Obama said public workers understand they must absorb their share of budget cuts. But he delivered a sharp message to governors seeking to strip away union protections, saying: “I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified, or their rights are infringed upon.”
Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker, was not at the White House but rather in his home state as a nationally watched budget showdown rolled on. He called for Democratic lawmakers to return to the state by today and vote on his bill that would end most collective bargaining rights for public employees as part of a plan to plug a $3.6 billion shortfall.
Republican governors generally gave a thumbsdown to Obama’s pledges of flexibility on the health care law, which requires Americans to buy health insurance or pay a penalty beginning in 2014.
“I was disappointed,” said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. “Pretty much all he did was reset the clock on what many of us consider a ticking time bomb” that could “crush our budgets.”