WASHINGTON (AP) - The White House strengthened its stand against health care coverage for illegal immigrants Friday, and a pivotal Senate committee looked ready to follow its lead.
The developments reflected a renewed focus on the issue in the days since a Republican congressman's outburst during President Barack Obama's health care speech to Congress on Wednesday night. Republican Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted "You lie!" as Obama said illegal immigrants wouldn't be covered under his health plan.
Democrats had pointed to provisions in House and Senate legislation that prohibited illegal immigrants from getting federal subsidies that would be offered to lower-income Americans to help them buy insurance.
That didn't go far enough for Wilson or many other Republicans, who noted the absence of any enforcement mechanism or requirement for verification of legal status. There are some 7 million illegal immigrants in this country who lack health insurance, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
The issue has caused heat on talk radio and at congressional town halls, too. So on Friday, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs sketched a new position that goes even further than some conservative critics had demanded: Obama will oppose letting illegal immigrants buy insurance through new purchasing exchanges the government will set up - even from private companies operating within the exchanges.
"Illegal immigrants would not be allowed to access the exchange that is set up," Gibbs said. Verification requirements are "something we'd work out with Congress," he said.
Currently illegal immigrants are barred from government-funded care except in certain emergency cases, but many buy private insurance and there's nothing to prevent them from doing that. That would change under the White House's proposal, which is certain to alarm some on the left.
White House officials contended that the policy didn't represent a change of position for Obama, but it's one he apparently hasn't articulated in the past. In his speech Wednesday, Obama said only that "the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally."