NPR logo Senate Democrats, Obama Lay Out Health Plans

Politics

Senate Democrats, Obama Lay Out Health Plans

President Obama campaigned for health care reform at town hall meetings during the summer, including one at Broughton High School in Raleigh, N.C., in July. But in a rare address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, Obama has promised to go beyond his often-repeated general principles of reform. Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP hide caption

toggle caption Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

President Obama campaigned for health care reform at town hall meetings during the summer, including one at Broughton High School in Raleigh, N.C., in July. But in a rare address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, Obama has promised to go beyond his often-repeated general principles of reform.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

Hours before President Obama was scheduled to restate his case for overhauling the nation's health care system, Senate Democrats said Wednesday that they were prepared to move ahead before the end of the month on legislation — with or without support from their GOP colleagues.

But a key Senate Democrat also said that a bill including a "public option" — or a government-run health insurance program — would not win Senate approval.

Obama, in a rare address Wednesday night to a joint session of Congress, is expected to go beyond the well-trod ground of general principles on the overhaul and talk specifics in an effort to reassure Americans about what a remaking of health policy would mean for them.

Hours before the address, Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the key Senate Finance Committee, said he would put forward a health care overhaul bill next week even if Republicans failed to sign on. But he also made a prediction about the "public option" — long a sticking point in negotiations among some Democrats.

"I think, quite frankly, with increasing conviction that a public option cannot pass the Senate," he said.

The president, in an interview on ABC's Good Morning America on Wednesday, said he was "open to new ideas."

"We're not being rigid and ideological about this thing," he said.

The 35-minute speech was still being written Wednesday, much of it by the president himself. White House officials promised it would "answer all the major questions" — including the sticky issue of how to pay for getting coverage for the 50 million Americans who lack it.

The pledge by Baucus to go it alone if necessary could bolster the president's message. Baucus said Wednesday that the "time has come for action, and we will act."

"I very much hope and expect that there will be some Republicans" who back the plan, Baucus said, but added that he was "going to move forward anyway."

"This is our moment. We have spent many weeks and months on this and now is the time to move forward," he said.

The Baucus proposal, which would likely go to the full committee for consideration the week after next, would probably be "fairly close" to a compromise health care plan he floated over the weekend, Democrats said.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, in an interview that aired Wednesday on NPR's Morning Edition, said that in his address, the president wants to clear up "a lot of confusion out in the public about this."

The bottom line, Gibbs said, is that nothing will change for people who receive health insurance through Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Affairs or an employer.

"When the president is done, everyone who listens will understand that his plan, at its core, has two overriding goals: first, to bring stability and security to Americans who have insurance today, and affordable coverage to those who don't," he said.

It remains to be seen whether Obama's prime-time speech will put the Democratic-controlled Congress on a clearer path toward health care legislation — something that would seem to require that the president take a firm position on a public insurance option.

"You will hear the president tonight talk about how he thinks the public option is still valuable," Gibbs said.

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."

A Push From The 'Gang Of Six'

Earlier, Baucus told the five other senators on his committee who are members of a bipartisan group known as the "Gang of Six" that they have until Wednesday to weigh in on the proposal.

His $880 billion compromise framework does not call for a public insurance option to compete with private insurers. It instead advocates member-run insurance cooperatives as an alternative. The plan would impose new fees on the health care industry to expand coverage to Americans without insurance, and proposes a lower-cost coverage plan for those under age 25.

Baucus' committee remains the only congressional panel with a say in the issue that has failed to produce a piece of legislation on remaking health care. Three House committees and one Senate committee have already approved their versions of the bill; there is no single bill.

Public Option In Play?

Also on Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi huddled with the president in anticipation of his speech. Both Democratic leaders emerged from the meeting insisting that a public insurance option is very much alive.

Reid said the Senate is working toward a plan with a public option, and Pelosi said the final bill that will emerge from the House will include a public option — despite her lieutenant's insistence earlier in the day that a public plan is not essential.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, told reporters on Tuesday that though he is a supporter of a public plan, the House could pass a bill without one as long as it includes "important components," including expanding insurance to those without it.

And though three House committees have passed their own versions of a health care overhaul, Hoyer said: "There is no bill at this point in time.

"We will be coming together now and be putting together the bill that will go to the floor," he said.

A leader of a group of 23 conservative House Democrats known as the "Blue Dogs" also suggested that the public plan may face a less-than-certain future. Democratic Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas said he would oppose any bill that contains a public plan.

Intraparty Battle

On Wednesday night, Obama is expected to insert himself into this battle more forcefully than he has since the overhaul debate began.

And he does so as polls continue to show that Americans remain divided on the need for a health care overhaul, but that the intensity level runs deeper among opponents than among supporters.

A Gallup Poll released Tuesday showed that by early September, 39 percent of those polled said they would advise their member of Congress to vote against a health care reform bill; 37 percent said they want their representatives to vote for it; and 24 percent had no opinion. The breakdown was largely unchanged from a survey taken in early August.

However, the new poll found that among those who oppose health care, 82 percent said the issue would be a "major factor" in how they vote in next year's midterm elections. Only 62 percent of supporters said the issue would be a major factor for them.

A similar Associated Press-GfK Poll conducted in August and released Wednesday showed a 49 percent disapproval rate for the president's handling of the health care issue. That's up from 42 percent in July.

And with a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showing that Congress is suffering its lowest approval ratings in two decades, there's little doubt that members are paying close attention to the sentiments back home.

Contributing: Scott Neuman, NPR staff.

We no longer support commenting on NPR.org stories, but you can find us every day on Facebook, Twitter, email, and many other platforms. Learn more or contact us.