Obama Stepping Into Congressional Health-Care Fight

US President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting ...Sept. 3 (Bloomberg) — President Barack Obama will take a more direct role in the legislative fight over revamping U.S. health care and make his case directly to lawmakers and the public next week by addressing a joint session of Congress.

Seeking to overcome strong opposition from Republicans and resistance from some Democrats in Congress, Obama plans to offer more details of what he wants in final legislation. The decision to hold the prime-time address in a venue typically reserved for the annual State of the Union illustrates how central the health-care overhaul is to Obama’s presidency.

The president will speak to lawmakers after their return to work from a monthlong recess, during which public support for the overhaul plan dropped and senators and representatives were sometimes confronted by angry crowds at town hall meetings.

While Obama is promoting bipartisanship, his appearance risks highlighting differences as Democrats applaud and Republicans remain silent, said Stephen Hess, a presidential historian at George Washington University in Washington.

The image will be an “audience that is very quick to cheer and quick to jeer,” Hess said. “The commentary will be how divided the Congress is, not united, by doing it this way.”

Recent polls show the uphill climb Obama and congressional Democrats face in trying to get health-care legislation passed.

Growing Opposition

A CNN/USA Today Opinion Research poll found 51 percent of Americans surveyed Aug. 28-31 oppose Obama’s health-care plan, up from 45 percent in samplings conducted a month ago and another in late June. Forty-eight percent said they favor it.

The percentage of those who strongly oppose the plan jumped from 33 percent in the July 31-Aug 3 CNN/USA Today survey to 41 percent in the latest poll. The telephone survey of 1,010 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Obama is pressing lawmakers to extend coverage to the 46 million uninsured Americans and revamp a health-care system that accounts for about a sixth of the nation’s economy. His proposal for a government-run insurance program to compete with private insurers such as Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc. is among the most contentious issues, sparking much of the angry opposition at town halls.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi today reiterated her support for a public plan. “We cannot pass a bill without a public option in the House,” the California Democrat said at a San Francisco news conference. “Our members are very enthusiastic about it.”

President Barack Obama talks about health care during a town ...

Republican Objections

Republican lawmakers say the plan would drive private insurers out of business. Potential new taxes, such as a levy on the most generous health plans, also are unpopular, and Obama has drawn criticism from Democrats and Republicans for giving Congress too much leeway to write the legislation.

The Sept. 9 address and a speech to workers and union officials Sept. 7 in Cincinnati are part of Obama’s latest campaign to win support.

“There’s a new season coming,” White House senior adviser David Axelrod said in an interview Sept. 1. “We recognize that we’re entering the final phases of this debate and we’re going to do the things that we think are necessary to bring it to a successful close.”

None of the plans passed so far by three House committees and one Senate panel has garnered Republican support, though the Senate Finance Committee, with talks continuing among six bipartisan negotiators, is seeking a compromise.

Talks With Snowe

Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the key Republican negotiators, has been in regular contact with the administration, her spokeswoman, Julia Wanzco, said.

Snowe and White House officials have been discussing her proposal, first made last spring, to adopt a government-run insurance plan only if private insurers don’t provide enough competition in some regional markets.

“Conversations are taking place on her safety-net fallback option as they have throughout the debate this year, as well as other approaches,” Wanzco said. She said Snowe and the administration have “an open line of communication.”

Axelrod said criticism from two other Republican negotiators, Senators Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Charles Grassley of Iowa, wasn’t “consistent with people who were engaging in good-faith negotiations.”

Enzi responded today, saying in a statement that passing bills out of committee on party-line votes “is not bipartisanship.” He said he is continuing to work with the group of Democratic and Republican senators on the Finance Committee on crafting consensus legislation.

President Barack Obama waves during a town hall meeting in Grand ...

Engaging ‘Battle’

Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said Obama’s decision to speak to a joint session of Congress shows “the president is clearly not running away from this battle.”

“This level of involvement from the president could well be a game-changer,” Schumer said.

Republicans said it’s time to start over on a health- care proposal.

“The problem is the substance,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters on a conference call yesterday. “There’s been serious blowback and negative reaction across the country to what they are proposing.”

California Representative Xavier Becerra, vice chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said lawmakers are waiting to hear Obama’s speech before deciding how to proceed.

“We had a chance, over these last eight months, to try to shape a good bill for America,” Becerra said. “Now I believe the president is going to weigh in, and tell us, ‘This is now how we get this across the finish line.’”

Government Option

Lawmakers will be listening for what Obama doesn’t say as well. According to a congressional aide, Democrats don’t expect the president to insist on creating a government-run health insurance program. Administration officials cautioned against such speculation, noting that the speech is still being drafted.

Outside of the State of the Union address, past presidential speeches to a joint session of Congress mostly have been devoted to war and peace. Former President George H.W. Bush addressed both chambers after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and then again on March 6, 1991, at the conclusion of the Gulf War. His son, former President George W. Bush, used it to address the nation nine days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

It also won’t be the first time a president has used a joint session to make the case for health-care reform. Former President Bill Clinton did so on Sept. 22, 1993, in his failed effort to win passage of his plan to overhaul the health-care system.

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