Obama To Urge Congress To Act Fast On Health Care

President Barack Obama gives a speech Wednesday outlining what he sees as the way forward on health care. The president declared the issue his top domestic priority a year ago, and once again, this moment is being called the last, best chance to move forward.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Today, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee announced he was stepping down, temporarily. Democrat Charles Rangel has been caught up in a congressional ethics investigation, and it's a setback for Democrats as they make another last-ditch effort to pass health care overhaul.

President Barack Obama begins the endgame later today. He will outline a way forward for Congress. NPR's Mara Liasson is here to explain the latest White House plans to heave health care legislation over the finish line - is one way of putting it.

Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, about health care; the president is not scrapping the bill and starting over as Republicans demanded at the health care summit last week. What is his plan?

LIASSON: Well, the path forward for the president and the Democrats involves the complicated set of votes. The House will have to accept the bill passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve. Then, both houses will have to pass a package of fixes that represents the compromise between that Senate bill and the one the House passed back in November. And it's that package of fixes that the Senate is going to try to pass by a simple majority vote, using the procedure known as reconciliation that we have been hearing so much about.

MONTAGNE: Does all of this mean that the seven and a half hour summit last week was just for show?

LIASSON: No, it doesn't. The president, actually, is going to announce today that he is going to accept four Republican ideas that came up at that Blair House summit. Their ideas on tort reform, health savings accounts, waste, fraud and abuse, and doctor reimbursement. He's also going to scrap the special deal that Florida got in the bill. But he is clear, he's sticking to his plan to do comprehensive reform. He doesn't believe that piecemeal reform is the way to go.

MONTAGNE: Well, what makes the administration think this can get through Congress? I mean, the Democrats have fewer votes than they did when the House and Senate passed those bills last year. And the idea of health care overhaul has - seems to have only become less popular?

LIASSON: Well, that's true, and it's going to be a very heavy lift. In the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid should be able to get the 51 votes he needs for that package of fixes. But in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi is going to have a very tough job. She has a small pool of no votes to convert to yes. And some of her previous yes votes have been wavering because Democrats are getting quite panicky about the November elections. The president is going to have to work very hard to twist arms and convince Democrats that doing nothing is worse for them politically - because they'll look like they are ineffective and can't govern - than passing something controversial.

MONTAGNE: Okay. And health care being big business, are lobbyists gearing up for a huge last-minute fight?

LIASSON: Well, lobbyists are, and both sides are. The Republicans are saying that - they're warning Democrats that if you do this, if you pass this, this is going to be the issue in every race in America in the fall. The pro health reform groups are gearing up, and the White House is trying to get industry to step in. The Business Roundtable, which is a group of major corporations that the president has been courting - he had its executive board to dinner at the White House last week - issued a statement, saying that doing nothing would only make the cost of providing health care to their employees go up over the next 10 years.

And this is one of the most interesting things about this whole fight. To the extent that the health care effort is on life support, it got that way, not because of opposition by industry - the way that Big Pharma or the insurance companies helped kill the Clinton health care plan. Most of the industry groups have stayed, more or less, inside the tent. The health care effort is in trouble because of grassroots opposition and a very determined, disciplined minority on Capitol Hill, and the failure of the president's own Democrats to pass the bill when they should have last year.

MONTAGNE: And Mara, you know, in the midst of all of this, one of the Democratic leaders on health care, Charlie Rangel, this morning announced he was stepping aside now. It was temporary, but as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, what is that all about?

LIASSON: Well, he was already admonished by the Ethics Committee once. They are looking into other allegations against him - that he violated ethics rules. The Republicans were going to demand, on the floor of the House, that he step down from his chairmanship of this powerful committee. And Democrats started to abandon him. In this environment, they cannot defend someone who has been judged in violation of ethics rules.

MONTAGNE: But could it derail health care?

LIASSON: In and of itself, no. It certainly isn't a good thing for Democrats, but health care is such a heavy push as it is, I don't think the Rangel stepping down from his committee chairmanship directly affects that.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Mara Liasson.

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