Talks Continue On Health As Support Falters

The health care negotiations continue Thursday on Capitol Hill, and Democrats remain hopeful that all of the congressional committees involved will agree on legislation in the next few days. Public opinion about the effort has faltered in recent weeks.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand in California. I'm filling in while Michele Norris is off writing a book.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel in Washington.

The clock is winding down here on negotiations over health care legislation as the August recess looms. In the meantime, public opinion on the issue has been faltering. First this hour, we're going to talk about the politics of health care with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: We've been following these negotiations in Congress day by day. Why is this time so important?

LIASSON: Because lawmakers are about to go home, and President Obama really wanted to get a bill through both Houses of Congress before they did that, because he knows that a president is at the greatest height of his powers in the first month that he's in office. And when the lawmakers go home they hear a lot from unhappy people. And this is exactly the point when the Clinton health care plan started to lose steam in 1993.

And there are a lot of vulnerable Democrats. This is a time he wanted to lock them in for a plan. They're going to go home, and they are going to get a lot of pressure to vote against a plan that has certain elements in it. This is exactly why the Republicans want to delay this. John Boehner, the leader of the House Republicans, predicted very confidently that this effort will be shredded in August.

SIEGEL: So, the House goes on recess at the end of this week, Senators the week after that, the members will go home. We assume health care will be a big topic for them at home.

LIASSON: Very big topic. There'll be town meetings. They'll be meeting with health care providers. And they're also going to be hearing a lot from both organized supporters and opponents of these plans. This is going to be a real test of the grassroots. Right now, Organizing for America, which is Obama's grassroots army, has more organization and money than the opponents of health care reform. That wasn't the case in 1993 when the opponents were better funded.

But still, there's going to be plenty of advertising by the Republican National Committee and the Chamber of Commerce saying this is a government takeover. You're going to have to pay higher taxes. You're going to lose your doctor. That is a very powerful message.

SIEGEL: And how is the White House talking about all this? Is the message changing at all for this moment?

LIASSON: The message is changing a little bit. Instead of talking about health care reform, now the president says health insurance reform. I think he always understood that to sell it, he had to talk to the people who have insurance. That's one lesson he learned from the Clintons' efforts. Don't just focus on expanding coverage to the uninsured. People are worried that their health insurance will change or get worse. But that has been a very hard argument to get across because the daily headlines have been about how the plans that are in Congress don't lower costs and they cost a trillion dollars over 10 years.

SIEGEL: Now, what complicates matters for the president is that his poll numbers are slipping. And there have been a number of polls recently about health care. Tell us about the polls.

LIASSON: Including one by us.

SIEGEL: NPR, yeah.

LIASSON: And in our poll, he's at 53 percent approval rating - that is his lowest to date. And even more importantly, the number of people who strongly disapprove of him now equals or surpasses the number who strongly approve of him. It used to be very lopsided the other way around. That makes it harder for him to sell health care because up until now he's been more popular than his policies and that has provided cover for Democrats.

There's also accumulative effect. The economy is still bad. The stimulus plan is perceived not be working, at least not yet. So, his numbers on the economy are going down - makes it harder for people to trust him on health care.

In our poll, more people are opposed to the Democrats and the president's health care proposals than support them. And the longer these plans are out there - it seems - the less popular they get. That's what Republicans are hoping and that's the reason why the president wanted Congress to vote on these plans before they left, but they are not.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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