Obama Readies Health-Care Reform Specifics

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 7, 2009

Looking to rescue his signature domestic policy initiative with a prime-time address to Congress on Wednesday, President Obama for the first time is poised to "draw some lines in the sand" over the size and shape of legislation to remake the nation's health-care system, top advisers said Sunday.

Until now, Obama has resisted taking firm positions on specific elements of a broad health-care bill, instead expressing openness to many ideas. But the approach has left lawmakers divided over contentious elements, such as how to rein in costs. And with a growing chorus in favor of a slower, less ambitious approach, Obama is inching toward a proposal that would bear his name and carry the political risks of sponsorship.

The president returned from Camp David on Sunday and spent part of the day working on his address, some of which may be tested Monday in a Labor Day appearance in Cincinnati, aides said.

"People will leave [Wednesday's] speech knowing where he stands," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "And if it takes doing whatever to get health care done, the president is ready, willing and able to go do that."

Obama is not inclined to make veto threats, as President Bill Clinton did on the issue of universal health care, Gibbs added, "but I'm sure he will draw some lines in the sand."

Even as preliminary drafts of Obama's address circulated Sunday, administration officials continued to hold out hope that bipartisan talks in the Senate may provide a road map -- and political cover -- for the direction the president will take Wednesday.

"Let's see what the Finance Committee does," said one administration aide who is involved in health policy but is not permitted to speak to the media. "Then we'd have five bills to pull from."

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), after learning of Obama's plans to speak, suggested that he may be ready to introduce a bill this week. The announcement was evidence that the mere mention of an Obama speech "is already having an effect," said a senior White House official who requested declined to discuss internal deliberations publicly.

Others were more cautious.

"He doesn't have a consensus at this point in time," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.).

Still, Nelson and several fellow Democrats hinted at a possible compromise on one of the thorniest unresolved questions: whether to create a government-run insurance plan -- or "public option" -- for individuals and small businesses that have trouble buying coverage in the private market.

From the earliest days of his presidency, Obama has made a top priority of twin goals: to extend coverage to millions of uninsured Americans and to slow the fast-rising rate of inflation for medical care. Many people worried that his initial efforts to frame the initiative in a broader economic context would exacerbate deficit woes, polls indicated.

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