- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

UPDATED:

President Obama will address a joint session of Congress next Wednesday to push his health care reform proposal as the administration looks to regain the momentum in a fight that has gone against them over the past two months.

The White House confirmed Wednesday afternoon that Mr. Obama will head to Capitol Hill in one week to speak to lawmakers upon their return from a monthlong vacation.

The direct address raises the stakes in a fight that has bloodied the young administration more than many had expected, but it signals the seriousness and urgency with which the president and his advisers view the issue.

Mr. Obama is spell out more precisely which reforms he favors and which he does not. So far, he has laid out broad principles and allowed Congress to hash out the details among several different committees.

David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, told The Washington Times that the administration’s new strategy is to start synthesizing or pairing up the many ideas under debate in Congress with the broader principles that the president has talked about for months.

The president, Mr. Axelrod said, has “laid out some very specific principles. The Congress has laid out many ideas.”

“It’s time to pull the strands together and finish the work,” Mr. Axelrod said. “And that is what he intends to do.”

The president is not expected to insist that a government-run “public option” be part of any final plan, though White House officials would not say for sure either way. But the White House has declined for weeks to be pinned down on the controversial government-run component, saying only that Mr. Obama’s priority is a reform that increases competition in the health insurance industry and choice for consumers.

The move by the White House comes after a difficult two months that has seen public support for the president’s health care reforms and his overall job approval plummet.

Earlier in the day, top officials said the contentious debate over health care reform is entering a “new phase” and promised an increase in assertiveness from the president.

In the latest indication that the Obama administration may give up its pursuit of a bipartisan bill, a White House official said the “new phase” is partly the result of Republicans “walking away from the table” in recent days and weeks on a compromise reform bill.

Angry town-hall meetings dominated the news for weeks in August as constituents opposed to the president’s plan harangued and sometimes shouted down members of Congress and at least one Cabinet member.

Rumors have swirled that Democrats now will try to push through a bill without Republican support, using a procedural tool in Congress called reconciliation. The White House never has closed the door on that option.

Jane Hamsher, a liberal blogger who founded the site Firedoglake, said it is no surprise Mr. Obama’s planned speech isn’t likely to include a demand for a public insurance option.

She said it’s a “huge tactical mistake” since an August Survey USA poll showed support for the public option at 77 percent. She helped members of Congress who promised they would vote against a bill without a public option raise more than $400,000 last month, and said without that plan in the bill, the reform effort amounts to just throwing money at the insurance industry.

“Every point I’m making Obama agreed with at one point in time; that’s how he got into public office,” Ms. Hamsher said.

Ms. Hamsher said in an interview that Democratic members in safe districts who don’t back a public option run the risk of facing primary challenges from the left.

“Why aren’t they going to hold the line on something President Obama campaigned on and they campaigned on?” she said.

A White House official on Wednesday said that the political landscape has changed because of recent Republican actions.

“We are entering a new phase driven in part by the actions of some in the GOP, including [Iowa Sen. Chuck] Grassley and [Wyoming Sen. Mike] Enzi, which indicates that they are essentially walking away from the table,” the official said.

Mr. Grassley and Mr. Enzi are two of the three Republicans in the “Gang of Six,” a bipartisan group on the Senate Finance Committee that has been trying to hash out a reform plan that will attract GOP support.

But Mr. Grassley has made several critical comments about Mr. Obama’s reform plans recently. He said in a fundraising letter that he always has “been opposed to the Obama administration’s plans to nationalize health care.”

Mr. Enzi said in the Republican Party’s radio and video address last weekend that Democratic reform proposals under consideration in the House of Representatives “will actually make our nation’s finances sicker without saving you money.”

Craig Orfield, a spokesman for Mr. Enzi, said that the senator “remains committed to working toward a bipartisan solution to provide real health care reform.”

A spokesman for Mr. Grassley did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment

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