Obama asks Congress to pass health bill

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Addresses to joint sessions to Congress are rare. His two predecessors gave just one each. President George W. Bush spoke just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and President Clinton gave his own health care speech to Congress in 1993.

As is traditional for these speeches, Mr. Obama was repeatedly interrupted by applause from the members. And a surprising number of his lines drew approval from both sides of the aisle.

In a sign the speech was being tweaked until the end, Republicans said the White House broke from tradition and instead of providing members who attend with a ceremonial bound copy of Mr. Obama’s remarks, only distributed talking points.

A White House official said Mr. Obama was still editing the speech as he flew back from a memorial service for newsman Walter Cronkite in New York on Wednesday afternoon.

Mr. Obama appears to have learned lessons both from Mr. Clinton and from his own 8-month-old administration.

Mr. Clinton tried to push a health care bill, drafted in secret, onto Congress in 1993 and 1994, but lawmakers balked at the complexity and at having been left out of the process.

By contrast, Mr. Obama had left this Congress to craft bills — and ended up with bickering between and within both political parties. With the fights threatening his entire push, Mr. Obama on Wednesday decided to take direct control of the debate.

But the divisions remain.

Three House committees and one Senate committee have approved health care bills along party lines.

One key Senate panel — the Finance Committee — has yet to act. Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, has been trying to craft a bipartisan deal, but said Wednesday he will move forward with a bill over the next two weeks whether he has Republican support or not.

After the president’s speech, Mr. Baucus said his plan is “basically the same” as the president’s proposal, except for the public option and coverage for catastrophic care.

Mr. Baucus said he supports the catastrophic plan, which Mr. McCain proposed during last year’s presidential campaign, but favors cooperatives rather than a public option because the latter can’t pass the Senate.

He said insurance cooperatives would provide the competition that some are seeking from the public option.

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