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Obama Prepares for Crucial Health Reform Address

September 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As public opinion dips on health reform, President Barack Obama prepared for a crucial prime-time speech to Congress on the divisive issue.

JIM LEHRER: President Obama prepared today for a crucial prime-time speech on health care reform. He planned to address Congress and the nation this evening in the face of sliding public opinion polls.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tonight’s health care speech will be the president’s attempt to reset the debate on his central legislative initiative. Mr. Obama underlined that goal on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So the intent of the speech is to, A, make sure that the American people are clear exactly what it is that we’re proposing; B, 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: Across the Capitol today, Republicans and Democrats laid out what they want to hear the president say.

REP. MIKE PENCE, R-Ind.: Tonight, the president has an extraordinary opportunity to lead this nation, to strike a truly bipartisan stance, to reject the ideas that the American people have rejected, and to embrace the ideas that the American people are prepared to embrace. A health care reform built on bringing real competition and real choice to our private insurance economy is the key.

REP. JOHN LARSON, D-Conn.: People are coming to the commonsense conclusions that, once they’ve dealt with all the misinformation and flat-out lies, in many circumstances, that now it’s time for the truth to unfold. I believe that the president will be that truth deliverer this evening and that this Democratic caucus will come together and pass a bill and put it on the president’s desk.

Wrangling over the public option

KWAME HOLMAN: It's already clear the president will endorse a so-called public option, a government-run insurance program to compete with private insurers, but he's not expected to demand it be part of a final bill, and that's a critical point here at the Capitol.

Republicans remained firmly opposed to a public option. Congressman Zach Wamp of Tennessee warned again it would lead to a government takeover of the health care industry.

REP. ZACH WAM, R-Tenn.: If I were the president, I would push the restart button and say, "Let's find some bipartisan middle ground and start incremental reform." I don't think he's going to do that. I think he's going to say, "This is why we have to have a public option."

But people are not leaving this country to go to Great Britain and Canada to get their health care. It's the other way around, because our system, while it needs to be improved, is still the best in the world.

KWAME HOLMAN: In addition, Lincoln Davis and other moderate House Democrats said again they have reservations about the public option.

REP. LINCOLN DAVIS, D-Tenn.: It has not been explained. There's not been a real explanation. There's not even a bill. There's not a statement. It's just says a public option. Until that public option is defined, it will be very difficult for a lot of us to vote for it.

KWAME HOLMAN: But liberal Democrats -- such as Xavier Becerra of California -- pressed to keep a public option in any final bill. They insisted it would give Americans more health insurance choices and lower prices.

REP. XAVIER BECERRA, D-Calif.: Giving Americans that choice helps promote competition. It helps drive down costs. And the CBO told us it's in the hundreds of billions of dollars. So if you want reform, you've got to offer consumers choice. You want reform, you've got to bring down the cost. You want to both bring down the cost and give people choice, you've got to have a public option.

Baucus ready to move on bill

KWAME HOLMAN: Over in the Senate, Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus has been meeting with a small group from both parties trying to hammer out a bipartisan bill. Today, he promised to unveil his own plan next week, without Republican support if necessary.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS, D-Mont.: My door is open, but irrespective of whether or not any Republicans -- and I do think that there will be -- I'm going to move forward anyway. We have to move forward.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Baucus also said he now believes time has run out on including a public option in any Senate bill.

SEN. MAX BAUCUS: I think, frankly, with increasing conviction, that a public option cannot pass the Senate. As each day goes by, talking to senators, private statements and public statements, and some statements over on that side of the, you know, the Capitol, it's just -- it's more and more my view that it's -- and I could be wrong -- but it's my belief that a public option cannot.

KWAME HOLMAN: Other Democrats on the Finance Committee sharply disagreed, including Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, D-W.Va.: I mean, if you're not going to do the public option, then you have to have an alternative. And you just say, "Well, we'll do co-ops," and nobody knows what they are. Nobody can explain them.

Regaining public support

KWAME HOLMAN: On another health care sticking point, a spokesman for the president said he would address the need for meaningful medical malpractice reform, something long advocated by Republicans. West Virginia Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito said that is something she and other members of the GOP would welcome.

REP. SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO, R-W.Va.: I'd like to see us go to the common areas where we can agree rather than reshaping. A more targeted reform is what I would prefer and what I'm looking for. So I'm going to be interested to see how specific the president gets. I think he needs to be very specific, and I think people are going to be listening.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president also aimed to sway public opinion. A series of polls has shown falling support for his handling of the health care issue and for proposals circulating in Congress. Andrew Kohut is president of the Pew Research Center.

ANDREW KOHUT, president, Pew Research Center: Three-quarters of the people we questioned this past weekend said this issue is personally important to me. And two-thirds of them said, "I don't understand it."

And the president has to make clear what these reforms mean for ordinary Americans, how they're going to be paid for, and what the consequences are, both for the country and for individual citizens. And so far, there are a lot of questions about each of these points.

KWAME HOLMAN: Other poll results have shown Americans still support the president's ideas over those of Republicans. He aimed tonight to build that support and ultimately to sign health care reform into law by year's end.