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Speech Earns Much Praise, Leaves Many Questions

Correction Appended

Congressional Democrats across the ideological spectrum hailed President Barack Obama’s Wednesday address to a joint session as a needed boost for his challenged health care reform drive, even if it left unsettled the thorny question of how to proceed on a public insurance option.

Democrats rattled by a difficult August recess said they were looking for the speech to reframe the political battle, and they expressed cautious optimism that it would heal intraparty divisions that have become a major obstacle to reform.

“Well, we hope so,— said Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who shepherded health care reform legislation through the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee earlier this year. “It sounded pretty good to me. I think there was a lot of clarity tonight.—

“I just think [he] hit it out of the park,— added Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), a key Democratic leader. “I think he didn’t flinch, he did exactly what he needed to do, which was to say, here is how it helps you.—

Moderate House Democrats expressed some wariness about Obama’s push for a public insurance option, though he tempered his case by making clear he was open to other approaches. And despite those hedges, liberals who went into the speech looking for a strong statement in favor of the public plan said they came away satisfied.

“All of us who are big supporters of public option felt extremely reassured that this is an important part of the proposal he laid out tonight,— said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a leading liberal and Obama ally. “What’s really exciting about it is it put us on offense once again.—

Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said that Obama put the public option in perspective and that members of the liberal Congressional Progressive Caucus shouldn’t obsess over it. “We have to find a way to get the votes to accomplish the president’s goals,— Waxman said. “I think the press has played up this public option as if it’s the be-all-end-all of health reform. We’re going to do everything we can to fight for it, but our goal is not a public option, our goal is health reform with a public option.—

Leading Democrats in both chambers said the speech goosed the reform drive by making clear the need for action and detailing what Obama wants in the package.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) indicated that the president’s new specificity would aid him in pushing a bill that has been stalled for months.“The President’s outline will be helpful as the Senate spends the next several weeks crafting and passing legislation that preserves patients’ choice, lowers costs and improves the quality of care,— Reid said in a statement. “Now that the President has spoken, those who have opposed reform have a choice to make. They can continue to spread falsehoods about reform as they defend the status quo or they can step up to the plate and offer genuine ideas to strengthen the proposals before Congress.—

The president has actively courted GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) in recent weeks, but the centrist said in a statement that she was not completely pleased with the speech.

“I appreciate that President Obama shared many of the details of his vision for health reform at this pivotal and historic moment, and signaled a willingness to work across party lines,— Snowe said. “At the same time, as I continue to oppose the inclusion of a public option in any package, I would have preferred that the issue were taken off the table as I have urged the President — given that any bill with a public option will not pass the Senate and this divisive subject is unnecessarily delaying our ability to reach common ground.—

However, she said she was “encouraged— that Obama gave a nod to her proposal to create a public insurance plan as a “fallback— that would be triggered only if private insurers cannot cut costs or increase coverage.

Snowe has been actively engaged in months of negotiations with a group of five other Finance Committee members in pursuit of a bipartisan bill. However, the other GOP negotiators — Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) — have been cool to the proposal offered by Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) this weekend.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb), who recently came out in favor of Snowe’s trigger proposal, said he needs more details from the president on what he’s thinking regarding a public plan.

“I don’t think it was clear whether his idea was for it to be upfront or as a fallback position with a trigger. That’s why I think we need more details,— said Nelson. “It’s a good start.—

But other Democrats said they feel Obama gave himself plenty of wiggle room on the public option.

“I think what’s he’s made clear is that he prefers a public plan, and he told us why he prefers it and now the question is whether there’s an alternative,— said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Following Obama’s address, Republican Senators declined to pounce on the president or take political shots. But they were highly skeptical of his plan, citing a lack of details on the most contentious issues surrounding health care reform — particularly how to pay for the legislation.

And, they were no less receptive to left-leaning health care proposals they have flatly rejected up to this point, such as the public insurance option, than they were prior to the speech.

“I thought he gave a great speech like he always does. The problem is, the most important statement he said all night is that there’s still a few details to be worked out. And that’s pretty obvious,— said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who has met with Obama at the White House to discuss the issue. “He laid out a lot of broad parameters and made a lot of statements that sound good in general terms. But there’s just a lot of details that are left unexplained.—

Like Snowe, Chambliss and other Republicans gave Obama credit for reaching across the aisle but said the effort is in vain as long as he is pushing for a public plan. “He did reach out,— said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), whom Obama name-checked in the speech. “But a lot of the assertions were flawed. This is not as simple as he was trying to make it out.—

Grassley also took Obama to task for continuing to push a public option in the face of so much Senate opposition. “The speech could have been pivotal for bipartisanship if it had been clear-cut in ruling out the prospect of a new government-run plan,— Grassley said in a statement.

“By leaving it up to Congress, where key leaders in both the House and Senate support a government-run plan and control the ultimate outcome, the President passed up a big opportunity.—

Steven T. Dennis, David M. Drucker and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

Correction: Sept. 11, 2009

An earlier version of this story misattributed the following quote to Rep. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), when it was actually stated by Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.): “I found it very confusing, I think the American public is still going to be very confused, and it doesn’t advance the ball much.”

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