Politics & Government

Obama summons Congress for primetime health-care pitch

WASHINGTON — Eager to turn the page after a politically damaging month, President Barack Obama will launch a new push next week to overhaul health care, highlighted by an evening address next Wednesday to a joint session of Congress.

Obama will huddle first at the White House on Tuesday with the top Democrats in Congress — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada — setting the stage for closed-door meetings later that day among congressional Democrats as they roll back into town from their August recess.

The president then will address Congress on Wednesday night, using all the drama and pageantry of a State of the Union address as he strives to shore up falling support for a vast redesign of the nation's health insurance.

"Our nation is closer than ever to achieving health insurance reform that will lower costs, retain choice, improve quality and expand coverage," Pelosi and Reid said in a letter inviting Obama to address Congress. "We are committed to reaching this goal."

Perhaps, but much of the nation now opposes the health care proposals that are pending on Capitol Hill, public support is dropping for Obama and Congress, and the president's once-firm grip on the nation's political agenda now appears shaky.

Obama, who's spending the long Labor Day weekend at Camp David, will be greeting lawmakers who are returning from August breaks back home, where they heard complaints about the health care proposals at town hall meetings and watched polls register growing opposition.

A new McClatchy-Ipsos poll this week found that 45 percent of Americans opposed the Democratic proposals and 40 percent supported them. At the same time, a Pew Research Center survey found that just 37 percent of Americans had favorable opinions of Congress, down from 50 percent in April.

Obama's meetings with Pelosi and Reid could spell out a new political strategy for the fall, either a more specific legislative proposal from the president or a new political argument to help sell the Democrats' vision of health care.

The private meetings next week among Democratic lawmakers will be the first time they've huddled since the August recess. Those meetings should help inform Democratic leaders whether their party, which controls 256 of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 59 of the 100 Senate seats, has enough support to advance their health-care proposals.

Obama's role next Wednesday will be to "come to the Capitol and talk to those who support health care" and tell them "it's time to move forward," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., an assistant to the speaker. It may not be time yet for the president to spell out details of what he would accept, Van Hollen said, but "he will get involved in greater measure" during the fall.

Three House committees have written bills that include a "public option," or government-run insurance plan to compete with private insurers. House leaders expect to combine them into one bill and have it ready for a floor vote later this month.

The Senate Health committee has finished writing a similar bill. The Senate Finance Committee is still struggling to come up with an alternative plan. Talks among six Finance senators, three from each party, have gone on for weeks in search of a bipartisan compromise.

Republicans were skeptical of any Obama effort to rewrap the same proposals in new rhetoric.

"Of course we're happy to welcome the president back to the Capitol anytime he would like to come address Congress and the American people," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate. "But I don't think the problem is the messaging, I think the problem is the substance. ... The problem is what he's trying to sell. I think there's been serious blowback and negative reaction across the country to what they are proposing. "

Added Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee: "The American people believe we're moving in the wrong direction on health care. We should go back to Washington and start over."


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