Charlotte, N.C. — Republican senators hit the road early this week, arguing for what they called a more thoughtful and incremental approach to overhauling health care, an issue which is President Barack Obama's top domestic priority.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain, of Arizona, headlined the GOP's answer to the raucous town hall meetings of August, in which congressional Democrats shouted over angry constituents about health care, growing deficits and the increasing role of the federal government.
At a forum in Charlotte hosted by Sen. Richard Burr Tuesday, they urged caution when overhauling an industry that is one-sixth of the economy.
"Let me suggest that the way forward might be to start over," McConnell said.
Democratic leaders have said that health care must be revamped to make it more affordable and accessible.
Citing his reputation as a deficit hawk, McCain the Democratic-sponsored proposals' $1 trillion-plus price tag over 10 years. When it comes to spending taxpayer money, the federal government can be inept, he argued.
"Maybe some of you enjoyed watching the Cash for Clunkers program in action. That's not the kind of health care system I want for the United States," he said.
The senators also held campaign-style events in Missouri and Florida in the run-up before Congress convenes next week. Congress is under pressure from Obama to craft a health care bill by Sept. 15, after failing to do so before the August recess.
McCain faulted Obama for not offering his own health care plan, echoing criticism from former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan.
"The president has not come forward with a proposal," McCain said. "He's supposed to lead. Where is his proposal?"
On Monday, at a Kansas City, Mo., hospital, McCain and McConnell appeared before about 100 health care professionals, half invited by the hospital and half by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Missouri.
"We wanted to hear about it with people who are on the front lines," said Bond. "They are all concerned about who is going to pay for this grandiose expansion" of government services.
McConnell called for Congress "to step back, start over and think about incremental changes" to the health care system and warned against Democrats using to so-called "nuclear option," a procedural maneuvers to approve a bill with only a simple majority.
That, McConnell said, "will make it even hard to sell to the American people."
McConnell and McCain – who have fought fiercely for years over campaign finance – the senators interacted with deference, unity and self-deprecation at the event.
In Charlotte, McConnell introduced McCain as the "famous GOP senator."
McCain quipped, "You mean our most famous loser."
In Florida, a number of audience members told McCain they had voted for him in the presidential election.
"Everybody's saying, 'I voted for you.' I'm going to demand a recount," McCain joked.
Kellman reported from Washington. Associated Press Writer Matt Sedensky in Hialeah, Fla., contributed to this report.