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Obama to Address Congress; Democrats Expect Details on Health Care

Senate Democrats are welcoming President Barack Obama’s decision to address a joint session of Congress next week as a way to provide more detail on the health care bill he wants Congress to produce, but they said the White House’s enhanced presence behind the scenes on Capitol Hill could end up being more critical.

Democrats said they don’t expect to hear a slew of new proposals out of Obama’s expected Sept. 9 speech, even though the White House has promoted the talk as one that will be significantly more specific on the types of policies the president can support.

“The speech is for public consumption,— said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

One administration official told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the speech would not include a detailed plan, but that Obama would make his views known on the proposals that are already under consideration on Capitol Hill and elsewhere.“He’s drawing on what’s already out there,— the official told the AP.

Republicans said Obama is grasping at straws after a bruising August recess in which conservatives swarmed Congressional constituent meetings and town halls to express their displeasure with the bills currently under consideration.

“It seems like kind of a Hail Mary to me,— said one senior Senate GOP aide of the joint session of Congress. “They need to come up with a policy that makes sense to people, rather than another way of selling what they currently have.—

Democrats have complained for months that the White House’s arms-length approach to how the bill was being crafted in the Senate led to the delay in producing a measure before the monthlong break and contributed to the current split between liberals and centrists over whether a plan should include a public insurance option to compete with private companies.

Democrats on the Hill said the White House approach is going to change in the coming weeks.

“Behind closed doors is where it’s going to change,— said another senior Senate Democratic aide. “There are two fronts: a public front and a private front. The private front is where you’re going to see the progress.—

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are slated to meet with Obama on Tuesday — the day Congress comes back from recess. The discussion is expected to cover the fall agenda but will likely be dominated by health care reform.

The aide said the White House’s increased involvement could come under fire from some in the party as being too meddlesome, but Senate leaders believe it is probably the only way the party will be able to get a bill this year.

“At the end of the day, we’d rather have people complaining that the White House is too involved and end the year with a bill we can all support, rather than the White House keeping at arms-length and ending up with health care falling apart,— the aide said.

Democrats said Obama’s Congressional speech is the first step to Obama increasing his role on health care and that it would be supplemented by White House aides joining negotiations to bless or ax provisions from the measure. While the White House has hosted meetings with key Senators and provided limited guidance on legislative provisions, Democrats say they now expect the White House to get down into the weeds of the legislation.

However, aides cautioned that the White House is unlikely to get heavily involved in crafting a bill until after Sept. 15 — the deadline Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has set for moving forward on a bill, with or without a bipartisan product. Baucus formed a gang of three Republicans and three Democrats to try to craft a bipartisan measure, but the unofficial subcommittee has come under fire from fellow Democrats for slow-walking the process. Additionally, many Democrats object to the gang’s focus on creating a nonprofit health insurance cooperative instead of a public insurance option, among other things.

The new White House strategy comes on the heels of statements by the chief Republican negotiators — Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.) — in which they have appeared pessimistic about the chances for a bipartisan agreement.

Enzi and Grassley on Wednesday disputed that they are backing away from the negotiations. An Enzi spokeswoman told the AP: “Repeating that you don’t agree with plans put together solely by one side doesn’t mean you aren’t willing to work together on a different plan. He is. He has been doing that.—

The Finance negotiators plan to talk Friday morning and will meet again early next week, Senate sources said.

However, Senate Democratic leaders do not believe a bipartisan deal is coming in the next two weeks; they said Reid has been working on his own bill during the August recess. He plans to vet it with both liberals and centrists once the Sept. 15 deadline has come and gone, according to the aide.

“If a deal’s not there, I think everyone will realize that pretty quickly when they come back next week,— said one Senate Democratic source.

This source said Senate leaders, and even committee chairmen such as Baucus, are committed to moving forward on Sept. 15, with or without the Republicans.

“If time is what the Republican negotiators wanted, they now have had their time,— said the source. “If politics takes down what had been productive negotiations, the committee chairmen, Reid and Obama will recognize that the time has come to pursue other avenues, and they’re prepared to do that.—

Part of what Reid has been exploring during the August recess is how to craft a bill using stringent budget reconciliation rules, which would prevent a likely GOP-led filibuster.

If Reid does not use that tool, he will have to gather 60 votes for a bill. With Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) death last week, Senate Democrats have control of only 59 seats.

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