Health Care Dominates As Congress Returns
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When President Obama addresses lawmakers tomorrow evening, a time when much of America can tune in, that speech is expected to set the tone of the health care debate to follow.
NPR Congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook will be following the debate and she joins us now. Good morning.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Good morning Renee.
MONTAGNE: So Andrea, set the stage for us now that lawmakers are back from their summer break and also hearing from their constituents all summer.
SEABROOK: Well Renee, it was a summer that surprised seemingly everyone in Congress. Democrats had set out to rally Americans in August, Republicans hoped to turn up the heat. Now neither side really understood how rowdy this PR war would get when conservative activists took over town hall meetings on health care, Democrats were put in a position where they had to defend a health plan that doesn't really exist yet, at least not as one thing; there are actually four plans circulating.
And actually, Republicans too were put in an odd place. I mean, cheering on the conservative opposition, but at the same time not wanting to seem as angry and bullying as some of those town hall protests were.
So, at the same time, we've also had a kind of subplot to the health care soap opera, Renee. The so-called Gang of Six senators - three Democrats, three Republicans - having conference calls and meetings all summer trying to negotiate another plan, a bipartisan one.
They've hit some serious obstacles, including those rowdy town halls. And now, the gang leader - if we call him that - Senator Max Baucus of Montana, is floating a proposal that throws out a public option, a government-run insurance plan, and instead includes health co-ops. Those are member-owned nonprofit insurance plans, sort of like a credit union.
It was a crazy summer for health care.
MONTAGNE: And do you know what President Obama is going to say or how much detail he's going to give in this primetime speech?
SEABROOK: Well, people over at the White House realize that this messy situation is a real threat to the survival of a health care overhaul, and they're going to try and shock the patient back to life here. Lawmakers I spoke to expect President Obama to give a speech that is part inspiring, part campaign-style speech - like we just heard in Scott Horsley's piece - part legislative nuts and bolts.
You know, the man who was a senator - what he wants, what he will support. Some Democrats have blamed the White House for not taking a much stronger place in the process from the very beginning and therefore passively allowing this summer to be the slog it became.
So, I think you'll see Mr. Obama, his hand much more strongly in the process as we move forward, starting out with this speech tomorrow night.
MONTAGNE: And how about the next few weeks? What's likely to happen?
SEABROOK: Well, I think you will see, in the House of Representatives, where there are three bills that came out of three different committees, the staffs of those committees - and now that lawmakers are coming back today, the actual lawmakers themselves, the chairmen of those committees - will be putting together what everyone's calling the tri-committee bill; putting together one big bill to come out of the House - that will eventually move onto the floor.
In the Senate, today, there's a big meeting of the Gang of Six. They will likely take up this proposal for Max Baucus; see if that can actually come out of the Gang of Six or come out of the Senate Finance Committee.
There's another bill that already came out of the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Senate. Those two will also have to become one thing that eventually comes to the floor of the Senate. And if you can get two things through, well, then they'll try and pass it.
I think more and more I'm hearing people in the House of Representatives, and especially the Senate, talking about these arcane sort of reconciliation rules, a way for Democrats to slam through their version of health care without the 60 votes necessary to prevent a filibuster.
So, we will see some serious politicking going on in the next, you know, three or four weeks.
MONTAGNE: Andrea, we've got just seconds left. But what else is on the list for the Congressional fall agenda?
SEABROOK: Big things. You've got climate change in the Senate. Most important out of all of them, probably: financial re-regulation. Look to Barney Frank in the House of Representatives as sort of ringleader of financial re-regulation.
MONTAGNE: Andrea, thanks very much.
SEABROOK: My pleasure.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Andrea Seabrook.
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