Rep. Mel Watt said Congress is likely to pass health care reform by Thanksgiving, but he stopped short of predicting that it would include a government-run option.

Speaking at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum in west Charlotte, the eight-term Democrat said he believes President Obama will sign a health care bill by year’s end.

Public sentiment, he said, has shifted back toward the Democrats, especially since Obama’s primetime speech to Congress.

“Part of it is that the other side overreached,” he said, referring to the boisterous town hall meetings that made nightly news in August.

Watt, who represents North Carolina’s 12th district, also said:

  • President Obama must ask some tough questions about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
  • African Americans can’t expect Obama to speak too openly about racism.
  • Radio One founder and Chairwoman Cathy Hughes is misguided in her criticism of him and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

On health care reform, Watt said the current system is unsustainable because of rising costs. He said he favors a government-run option because it would force private insurers to lower their rates. Any bill that does not create meaningful competition, he said, would require fixing in a few years.

As for GOP support, Watt said he’s not holding his breath. Republicans, he said, have much to gain by opposing reform.

“I don’t think we’re going to get a lot of GOP support, if any, for a health care bill,” he told the audience. “I don’t think we’re going to get any GOP support, if any, for an energy bill. And we didn’t get any GOP support for a stimulus bill.”

Watt said 60 percent of medical costs in the United States is already paid for with federal money, either through Medicare, Medicaid or tax credits to employers. And he chided those who say the Democrats are moving too fast.

“We’ve been trying to solve this since Truman,” he said. “Even in my political lifetime it’s been 16 years. What are we waiting on? We’re not rushing into this.”

On racism

When asked by an audience member to assess the Obama presidency, especially as it relates to Obama’s willingness to speak out against racism, Watt appealed for understanding.

“Understand that the president is not a black president; he is president of the United States,” Watt said. “You will never hear the president say that this is all about him being African American… You are not going to hear me say it.”

Watt said Obama risks losing credibility if he focuses too much on race. At the same time, he said, Obama has done more than other presidents to advance the national dialog.

Watt compared Obama to former President Bill Clinton, who he said did little to advance race relations. He said Clinton’s support for mandatory sentencing has helped fill prisons with African Americans.

Oddly, he said, the right wing attacks on Obama – especially the Joe Wilson “You lie!” outburst — may have helped shift public sentiment back toward the Democrats. Watt said he was disappointed that no Republicans voted to censure Wilson.

And while Obama can’t always speak out against racism, Watt said, there is no reason why private citizens can’t.

On Charlotte’s mayoral race

Watt, who was Harvey Gantt’s campaign manager when Gantt twice ran successfully for mayor and later unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate, said Democrats can’t afford to be complacent about voting this fall in local races.

“The Republicans believe last year’s election was an aberration,” he said. “They don’t believe that people in this room, black or white, will show up again. This is a litmus test for us.”

Watt said Republicans are eager to take back Congress in 2010 and the White House is 2012. At stake, he said, are key pieces of legislation and congressional redistricting, which will be decided by the next Congress.

On Afghanistan

With public support waning for the war in Afghanistan, Watt said Obama must soon decide whether that country is vital to U.S. interests.

“If it becomes an all-out war like Iraq, we shouldn’t be in Afghanistan,” he said.

He said the American people won’t support an ongoing, full-scale war there.

Having been advised by his own top general that the Afghan war is unwinnable without significantly more troops,” he said, “Obama now faces a hard choice.”

Watt said that he initially gave Obama time to figure out a strategy in Afghanistan but that he would not write the administration a blank check.

“I didn’t support a surge in Iraq, and I’m not likely to support a big surge in Afghanistan,” Watt said.

Whatever Obama decides there, he said, “I can assure you he’s going to be second guessed.”

On Cathy Hughes

The Radio One founder had gone on the air to chastise Watt and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus for supporting a bill that would require radio stations to pay royalties to recording artists whose music they play. Hughes says the bill amounts to a tax that would destroy black radio.

Watt disagrees. He said the proposal is about fairness and making sure singers and musicians are paid for their work.

“She’s just out there making it sound like we’re all crazy,” he said.

Watt said his office initially got tons of phone calls from curious voters when Hughes first launched her campaign. Those calls have all but stopped now, he said.

Watt said it’s unlikely the bill will pass Congress this year because its chief sponsor, Michigan Rep. John Conyers, said he won’t push it this term. But over the long run, Watt said, the issue must be resolved.

“This is no way to deal with your friends,” he said of Hugh’s public campaign against him and other Caucus members. “And I still consider her my friend… They are not going to intimidate me into changing my position.”

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