WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will seek to boost flagging support for healthcare reform next week with a rare speech to Congress after a rocky summer raised questions both about his leadership and legislative program.
Obama, who has staked significant political capital on a broad plan to overhaul the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry, will make his speech to a joint session of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on September 9, an administration official said.
The address comes as falling poll numbers and rising opposition to his reform plans have prodded the president to develop a new strategy for striking a deal.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers return next week from a monthlong recess punctuated by widely publicized town hall meetings that saw bitter shouting matches over healthcare.
Obama has broad goals of reducing healthcare costs and bringing medical insurance to the some 46 million Americans who do not have it. But opposition has focused on the “public option” — a proposed government-run health insurance plan that Obama supports as an alternative option to private insurance.
The White House, stung by coordinated resistance by Republicans and tepid support from some Democrats — some of whom wanted the White House to be more involved in the legislative battle — signaled a sharper tone as a push toward passage of a bill intensifies.
“We are entering a new phase in the debate,” said Dan Pfeiffer, White House deputy communications director.
“Congress is coming back from recess and over the last few days key Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they are not seriously interested in a bipartisan solution,” he said.
Republicans, sensing a possible Democratic soft spot ahead of next year’s mid-term elections, said a big new public speech was not the answer.
“Obviously, we want to hear what the President has to say, but the American people don’t want a new speech, they want a new plan,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Republican Leader John Boehner.
“We need to scrap the Democrats’ government takeover of healthcare and start over on a real, bipartisan plan for reform,” he said.
A senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the “new phase” was driven in part by negative comments from two Republican senators, Charles Grassley and Mike Enzi, who have been part of a bipartisan Senate “Gang of Six” group seeking a compromise.
The official said Obama felt it was time to pull together various strands from various bills that have been debated on Capitol Hill as well as other proposals.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus has set a September 15 deadline for his Gang of Six to come up with a bipartisan plan, saying that otherwise he is ready to push a bill through the committee with only Democratic support.
The “gang” is meeting via teleconference on Friday.
“Attacks by political operatives in the White House undermine bipartisan efforts and drive senators away from the table,” Grassley spokeswoman Jill Kozeny said.
In the past month, Americans surveyed in polls have shown increasing concern about Obama’s handling of healthcare and his popularity with voters has declined.
A CBS News poll on Tuesday said most Americans found healthcare proposals discussed in Congress confusing and thought Obama had not clearly explained his plans to overhaul the system, his top legislative priority.
“The Democrats lost control of the debate on healthcare and they need to seize the initiative and show people what they are going to do,” said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
Obama still wants the “public option” on health insurance, which is favored by his liberal base. But it is strongly opposed by the insurance industry, and many lawmakers doubt such an option could pass in the Senate, already unnerved by its nearly $1 trillion pricetag.
As a result, Obama and his aides have put less emphasis on the public option in recent weeks, stressing instead that he wants to increase choice and competition through the most acceptable means possible.
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Thomas Ferraro, Donna Smith and Ross Colvin; Editing by Doina Chiacu