Adviser's Resignation Comes Amid School Flap

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As Congress returns to Washington, President Obama is dealing with two setbacks that could distract attention from the health care debate. Several school districts have said they may not air his speech to students later this week after conservative parents complained that it would amount to political indoctrination. And early this morning, Van Jones resigned. The White House environmental adviser has been denounced by conservatives for what they have said are extreme left-wing views. NPR Congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook speaks with host Liane Hansen about what's on the agenda in Congress when lawmakers return to the Capitol on Tuesday.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

President Obama wants to retake control of the health care debate in a major speech on Wednesday night, but he has suffered two setbacks that could distract attention from his goal. Several school districts have said they may not air an Obama speech to students on education later this week after conservative parents complained that it would amount to political indoctrination.

And late last night, Van Jones, the White House environmental advisor, resigned. Jones has been denounced by conservatives for what they have said are extreme left-wing views. In a statement he said: On the eve of historic fights for health care and clean energy, opponents of reform have mounted a vicious smear campaign against me.

The news comes as Congress prepares to return from its summer recess. Joining us now to talk about the state of play on Capitol Hill is NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook. And, Andrea, what are lawmakers expecting from the president's speech on Wednesday night?

ANDREA SEABROOK: Well, as always, it depends, Liane, on which lawmakers. But Democrats in general want to hear strong decisive speech from him, one that takes the reins of this debate, a speech that defines the parameters, but also a speech that can go some distance in rallying the public.

Republicans are making a lot of the fact that those town hall meetings have gotten rowdy in some places with conservatives protesting any health care measures. And even the support among people who say they want health reform has softened some. And there are Democrats who blame President Obama for not leading the negotiations enough and not giving those would-be supporters something to line up behind. So, that's what many will be listening for on Wednesday night.

HANSEN: Now, it's assumed that the president wants to buck up the Democrats and put some energy back into the negotiations. What are lawmakers telling you about how difficult that might be?

SEABROOK: They're telling me it could be seriously difficult. I mean, the bipartisan, so-called Gang of Six senators, led by Max Baucus of Montana, still don't have their proposal ready. But there's a lot of talk in Washington about giving up on those negotiations altogether and going a different route. And one person has told me that the White House has been negotiating with Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, a Republican, directly instead of in the Gang of Six.

One idea that has come up out of that group though is the co-op option - that would be a nonprofit, customer-owned health insurance. Some in the Senate would like to see that rather than a government-owned public health care option. But it doesn't look like that would fly over in the House. Again, I think a lot of lawmakers are really looking to the president to throw down some hard targets for this debate in his speech on Wednesday night.

HANSEN: So, what do you expect to see on health care from Congress, maybe in the next month or so?

SEABROOK: Well, one thing I hear more and more about is dropping all by bipartisan negotiations altogether and slamming a bill through with only Democratic votes. There's a set of Senate rules called reconciliation rules that would allow Democrats to block a Republican filibuster and pass a health care bill with only 51 votes.

But the rules are very strict, so only the contentious portions of the bill would be passed that way. Everything else - the stuff that most lawmakers actually agree on, like barring insurance companies from excluding customers based on preexisting conditions and so on, that stuff would be put together in a separate bill that would likely sail through the House and Senate and even get Republican votes. So, in the next six weeks, say, we might see two different bills take shape here.

HANSEN: Is health care crowding out the rest of the agenda?

SEABROOK: Well, crowding out some things and giving others more breathing room. The other big item on the agenda this fall is more regulation of the financial markets. The effort to structure new rules for banks and lenders is being led by Barney Frank in the House and Chris Dodd in the Senate - both Democrats. And in some ways their work has been easier to do while the press is looking the other way.

Although in the Senate there is going to be an attempt, I'm told, to pass a climate change bill - the House already passed its version earlier this year. And, of course, there's the regular list of bills that fund the government for the coming year. Those will have to go through both the House and the Senate, as well, before the end of the year.

HANSEN: NPR congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook. Thanks a lot, Andrea.

SEABROOK: My pleasure.

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