Obama Seeks New Life for Health Care Overhaul

By Beacon Staff

WASHINGTON – After a summer of setbacks, President Barack Obama sought to resuscitate the drive for sweeping health care legislation Wednesday night with a high-stakes speech in prime time to lawmakers and an increasingly skeptical public.

“We do intend to get something done this year,” he said in advance of his address, a pledge echoed by Democratic leaders in both houses of Congress.

In a fresh sign of urgency, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., announced the Senate Finance Committee would meet in two weeks to begin drafting legislation, whether or not a handful of Democrats and Republicans have come to an agreement. The panel is the last of five to act in Congress, and while the outcome is uncertain, it is the only one where bipartisanship has been given a chance to flourish.

While Democrats command strong majorities in both the House and Senate, neither has acted on Obama’s top domestic priority, missing numerous deadlines leaders had set for themselves.

In a reflection of the stakes, White House aides mustered all the traditional pomp they could for a president who took office vowing to change Washington. The setting was a joint session of Congress, and the president was assured of the customary packed house and loud applause when he walked down the center aisle of the House chamber to begin his speech.

White House aides said Obama intended to call on lawmakers to send him legislation that provides new protections for those who have insurance; steps to make coverage affordable and available for those who don’t; and slows the explosive growth in medical spending nationwide.

One senior administration official said the president would make the case for including a provision for the government to sell insurance in competition with private industry, but was not expected to insist it be included in any legislation he signs into law.

The so-called “government option” has emerged as one of the most contentious issue in the months-long debate over health care, with liberal Democrats supporting it and many moderates inside the party opposed. An early draft of Baucus’ plan calls for an alternative consisting of nonprofit co-ops. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, the Republican who seems most inclined to cross party lines on the issue, favors a different approach, consisting of a standby in which the government could sell insurance if competition fails to emerge in individual states.

Interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” in advance of the speech, Obama listed his goals:

“So the intent of the speech is to make sure that the American people are clear exactly what it is that we’re proposing; to make sure that Democrats and Republicans understand that I’m open to new ideas, that we’re not being rigid and ideological about this thing — but we do intend to get something done this year; and to dispel some of the myths and, frankly, silliness that’s been floating out there for quite some time.”

The speech took place after weeks of halting progress and highly publicized setbacks for Obama and his allies on the issue of health care. After internal divisions prevented House Democrats from passing legislation in July, numerous members of the rank-and-file were confronted in town-hall style meetings with highly vocal critics.

There were charges — launched by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and debunked by nonpartisan organizations — that the legislation included “death panels” whose purpose was to facilitate the end of life for the elderly under Medicare.

At the same time, polling has shown a deterioration in support for the president, and an AP-GfK poll hours before the speech showed public disapproval of Obama’s handling of health care has jumped to 52 percent, an increase of nine percentage points since July.

Democrats had yet another change to factor into their plans. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s death this summer robbed them not only of the experience of one of the Senate’s most accomplished legislators, but also of their 60th vote in the Senate. That meant they needed at least one Republican vote to choke off any filibuster. Alternatively, they could try a more partisan approach, drafting a bill that could not be filibustered, but also shorn of some of the provisions they want.

Republicans greeted Obama’s appearance politely but coolly.

“When it comes to health care, Americans don’t want government to tear down the house we have,” said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“They want it to repair the one we’ve got. That means sensible, step-by-step reforms, not more trillion-dollar grand schemes.”

Obama has said repeatedly that agreement exists on about 80 percent of the issues involved in drafting legislation, and the White House and Baucus have lined up numerous outside interests to help shepherd a bill to passage.

The nation’s drugmakers and hospitals have already made deals to help pay a cost of the legislation. The American Medical Association also is in support, in large measure because the bills would avert planned reductions of 20 percent in their Medicare fees.

The AARP, which advocates for those aged 50 and over, is also in support of the approach Obama and his congressional allies have taken.

On the other hand, the nation’s health insurance providers have yet to come to terms with the White House. In recent weeks, Obama has used them as a target, accusing them of putting profits over patient coverage by denying coverage and other steps.