Obama sets major health care speech
President is moving to take back debate
WASHINGTON - President Obama plans to address a joint session of Congress next week in an effort to rally support for health care legislation as White House officials look for ways to simplify and scale back the major Democratic bills, lower the cost, and drop contentious but nonessential elements.
Administration officials said yesterday that Obama would be more specific than he has been to date about what he wants included in the plan. Doing so amounts to an acknowledgment that the president’s prior tactic of laying out broad principles and leaving Congress to fill in the details was no longer working and that Obama needed to become more personally involved in shaping the outcome.
But the officials said Obama was unlikely to unveil a detailed legislative plan of his own. And they insisted that Obama had not given up on the provision that has attracted the most fire from the right, a proposal for a government-run competitor to private insurers, although many Democrats say the proposal may eventually be jettisoned.
Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief staff, said Obama would be “more prescriptive than he has been to date.’’ And he added, “We have a tremendous amount of consensus in Congress to build off of.’’
In his address, Obama is expected to emphasize areas of potential agreement. One is the need for federal regulation of health insurance companies to prohibit them from denying coverage, or charging higher premiums, because of a patient’s medical history or current condition. Another is the need for federal subsidies to make insurance affordable to millions of lower-income people.
By signaling that they would seek to revise existing versions of legislation moving through the House and Senate, administration officials and Democratic leaders in Congress - many of whom had said earlier in the summer that they saw no need to scale back their ambitions - made clear that their political calculations had changed. With congressional Republicans standing almost unanimously in opposition to the Democratic approach, the target now for Obama is primarily a handful of moderate Democrats and the one Republican who seems open to a deal, Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.
“It’s so important to get a deal,’’ a White House official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He will do almost anything it takes to get one.’’
In scheduling a prime-time speech for next Wednesday before members of the House and Senate and a national television audience, Obama chose to put his political standing on the line more directly and dramatically than he has so far on health care, his signature domestic initiative.
Timed to coincide with Congress’ return from its summer recess, the president’s address would follow a tumultuous month in which opponents of sweeping health legislation disrupted lawmakers’ town-hall-style meetings and the White House struggled to regain control of the debate.
For now, White House officials said, Obama remains committed to the goal of insuring all Americans and still prefers to foster competition for insurance companies by creating a new government insurance program, or public option.