WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama implored House and Senate Democrats at the Capitol Wednesday to protect his signature health care since as former president, he would no longer be on the playing field. But Rep. Tony Cárdenas begged him to break tradition and not stay too quiet after leaving office.
The meeting between the president and Democrats in Congress was closed to media but after the more than an hour-long meeting, Cárdenas said Obama told the group that traditionally U.S. presidents go quietly. However, he also told the members he still planned to use his voice as a citizen, Cárdenas said.
"I begged him to please, please not stay quiet especially since this incoming president has broken all traditions and more and for this president to be tight-lippped … I begged him to please not do that. With his intelligence and truth, in 10 seconds, he could send this (next) president into a tailspin," said the California Democratic congressman.
Later in the White House press briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the president would allow others "to take up this mantle." "He's leaving the national stage and it's going to be time for someone else to pick up the mantle. But he said the president will work on issues he remains which he is passionate about.
The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, is already dominating the the new Congress as Republicans take steps to repeal it and Democrats seek to keep it in place.
Obama's visit to Capitol Hill was something of a call to arms for the party to protect the program that has provided some 20 million people with access to health care, about 4 million of them Latinos.
The issue is especially critical for Latinos. Despite the increase in people insured by Obamacare, almost 9 in 10 of Americans who remain uninsured are Latino, owners of small businesses, make under $16,000 a year or are under 35, according to a study by the Commonwealth Fund, which supports health care reform. About 40 percent of those who are uninsured are Latino.
Cárdenas said Obama reminded the Democrats of "the good things" that have happened because of the ACA and they should "own it." He also told them that now that Republicans have begun an effort to repeal the ACA, Democrats should make them own that.
Republicans tried multiple times to repeal the Affordable Care Act after its passage, but were unsuccessful. Now with control of Congress and a Republican in the White House they may have a chance. President-elect Donald Trump has said certain parts of it should probably be preserved, such as provisions allowing children to stay on their parents' insurance until age 26 and making sure that people with pre-existing conditions don't lose coverage or aren't denied it.
In states like California and New York, a significant number of Latinos have been able to gain health care through the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare. The Republican-led state legislatures in Texas and Florida — states with high Latino populations — did not implement Medicaid expansions.
Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-Texas, described the mood inside the auditorium during Obama's discussion as "celebratory but sober."
"Democrats know what's coming," he said.
He, along with other Democrats had voted against a rules package House Republicans offered in the House Tuesday. The package included a provision aimed at allowing the repeal of the Affordable Care Act by permitting the breaking of a rule that prevents adding to the deficit in legislative votes.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said Obamacare is "collapsing. It doesn't work, it's unsustainable, it's collapsing." He said his constituents who signed up for Obamacare are finding deductibles are too high, in the $7,000 to $8,000 range. He dismissed Democrats' warnings that Republicans have nothing to replace Obamacare and their predictions of coming chaos.
"There's going to be plenty of opportunity to vote on a replacement," he said. "This would be a disaster in the making if (Obamacare) was allowed to continue."
All Republican House members who are Latino voted for the package.
"We expect the Trump administration will try to undo a lot of things (Obama) tried to do," Castro said.
The GOP argues that the health care law has raised premiums and deductibles, reduced insurance choices and is driving up taxes.
In his own, separate news conference held about the same time, Vice President-elect Mike Pence said repealing the Affordable Care Act is the first order of business for the GOP but also said there should be an orderly transition to a new system.
Avoiding chaos and having something to replace Obamacare could make repealing the health care law more difficult.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois, left the meeting with tears glistening in his eyes and looking sullen. He said the meeting, for him, underscored the reality that 20 million people who have come to rely on the health care they now have will be left with nothing if the law is repealed.
"I hate to think that for those people tomorrow, the best is an emergency room," Gutierrez said. "As the president said, they come to you and say we are going to knock down your house but they don't even have plans yet for what they are going to build in its place, or where you are going to live."
Castro and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said they were urged by Obama to fight against the repeal of the ACA through the stories of people for whom it has made a difference.
"It has saved people's lives," Castro said.
Grisham said there are fixes that can be worked on by both sides. Trying to make such fixes may be a "rocky road," but a worthy one, she said.
She warned of the complexity of health care and its interconnection to other programs such as Medicaid and tribal health care, saying repeal could have a cascading effect to many different segments of the public.
Separately, the president also told the Democrats he would speak up on behalf of young immigrants who were shielded from deportation and given the chance to work through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act, or DACA, according to a congressional member in the room.
Heading into the meeting with Obama, Senate Minority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said that next week, he probably would refile legislation that creates a three-year temporary protection for DACA beneficiaries should Trump end DACA. Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., initially filed the bill, dubbed the BRIDGE Act, at the end of last year.