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Obama Tries To Build Momentum For Health Overhaul

Wed, 09/09/2009 - 6:16am

Jennifer Loven, AP White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama is set to detail in a prime-time address precisely how he wants to expand health care, and his spokesman said Obama's offer of flexibility will be coupled with a fresh argument for the much-debated public option.

"What we're going to hear tonight is, the president's going to speak clearly and directly to the American people about what's in this bill for them," press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday.

Making the rounds of morning news shows, Gibbs said Obama will highlight his vision of a health care overhaul that secures the insurance people now have, makes affordable care accessible to those without it and cuts insurance costs for familie and small businesses.

Discussing Obama's thinking, a senior administration official said the president will make a case for why he believes a government-run option is the best way to introduce greater competition into the system. The official, who discussed the speech on grounds of anonymity because preparations remain under way, also said Obama would offer to hear new ideas and he would not suggest any veto scenario at this time.

Even as Obama prepared to speak to a joint session of Congress and a live television audience, the leader of the influential Senate Finance Committee raced to broker a bipartisan agreement on the president's top domestic priority.

The White House set a high bar for the rare presidential address, acknowledging the huge stakes and creating big expectations about the level of specificity Obama would provide.

The president has stressed repeatedly the broad goals for the sweeping health care overhaul he seeks, but has left the details to lawmakers. Through a hot summer of angry debate, he lost his grip on the process.

Aiming to reclaim it at a pivotal moment and open a final push for a bill, Obama said, "We do intend to get something done this year."

"I'm open to new ideas," the president said in an interview Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America" in which he previewed the themes of his speech. "We're not being rigid and ideological about this thing."

Gibbs said the country needs "additional choice and competition so that those that are on the private insurance market aren't just dealing with one competitor to try to get quality, affordable insurance."

"The public option is a way of putting a check on insurance companies," he said.

Asked pointblank if Obama was preparing to demand a public option, Gibbs said only that he "will outline what he thinks the value of the public option is."

Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele dismissed the proposal in a separate interview, saying "the idea that the federal government can come in and be the same as Allstate in providing insurance, that's ridiculous."

Gibbs argued that a government-run option is "supported by a majority of people in this country" and said that currently "there's nobody to compete" in a situation where a private health care insurance company dominates the market.

With Obama's approximately 35-minute speech still being written, much by the president himself, White House officials said the president will "answer all the major questions" — including the sticky issue of how to pay for getting coverage for the 50 million Americans who lack it.

Obama will appear before lawmakers a day after their return from an August recess marked by contentious town halls and much misinformation and confusion about what a health care overhaul may look like.

A senior administration official said Obama has ceased worrying about whether he gets any Republican participation. "If they don't want to, we can't worry about that," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more freely discuss behind-the-scenes thinking.

But that is no longer Obama's biggest difficulty, a fact underscored by the conflicting advice he was getting from within his own party.

Rep. Zack Space, D-Ohio, a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition, said Obama should "appeal to both sides of the aisle, and to everyone involved in this situation, to embrace a sense of compromise and moderation."

But Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., co-chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, said he wanted Obama to state his unequivocal support for a government-run health insurance option to compete with private companies, and to clearly distance himself from the two alternatives now circulating. One of those would structure a public plan so that it would be triggered only if private insurance companies weren't providing enough affordable choices in certain areas; the other would set up nonprofit co-ops.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, circulated a proposal that would cost $900 billion over 10 years and guarantee coverage for nearly all Americans, regardless of medical problems. Fees on insurers, drug companies and others in the health care industry would finance tax credits to help expand coverage. Baucus' panel is the only one of the five involved in health care not to complete a bill yet, and the only one still searching for a bipartisan compromise.

One provision would fine families up to $3,800 for failing to buy health insurance, essentially requiring that everyone have medical coverage, much like the case with car insurance. Obama rejected a mandate, and fines, during his presidential campaign.

Baucus asked his "Gang of Six" bipartisan negotiators to report back with suggestions by Wednesday morning. "I made that clear, that the bipartisan effort will have more effect if there's agreement prior to the president's address," he said.

But few appeared ready to do as Baucus wants and move before hearing from the president. "That's the cart before the horse, as they say in Maine," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican being courted by the White House.

Like bipartisanship, prospects for a public insurance plan also dimmed. It is not in Baucus' plan, and two prominent House Democrats backed away from it Tuesday.

It is this issue that has become Obama's main quandary: Liberal lawmakers say they won't vote for legislation that doesn't include a public plan. But Republicans and many moderate Democrats won't vote for one with it.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Obama told her and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid during a White House meeting Tuesday that his message would essentially be: "If you have a better idea, put it on the table."

Gibbs appeared on NBC's "Today" show and CBS's "The Early Show," and Steele was interviewed on the "Today" show.

Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Erica Werner, Julie Hirschfeld David and Ben Evans contributed to this report.

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