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Preview Of Obama's Health Care Speech

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

There are some limited details emerging about President Obama's speech tonight to a joint session of Congress. Mr. Obama's aides say the speech is an effort to provide some clarity on the president's position on health care. And there has been a glimmer of movement on Capitol Hill from the last of five committees working on a massive health bill.

NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner is here to provide a guide for what to expect tonight.

Hey, Julie.

JULIE ROVNER: Hey, Melissa.

BLOCK: And these details that are emerging, tell us about them, please.

ROVNER: Well, we don't have that many. The White House has been briefing reporters all afternoon, but mostly they've been telling us that we're going to get specifics, not so much what the specifics are.

We do expect the president to talk about his continued support for a public plan to compete with private insurance, but probably not to make it a make-or-break issue. That's pretty much been his position all year. We also expect the president to reach out to Republicans on some issue that Republicans care about; things like malpractice reform and market competition. We don't know that the Republicans…

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROVNER: …are going to, you know, react well enough to that to jump on the bandwagon. But certainly there will be an effort to have some outreach to that.

We've seen a lot this week already on this new focus that the administration is putting on people who have insurance. The president's new phrase is security and stability; the efforts to make sure that this isn't just about helping people without insurance.

And tomorrow, I might add, we will get new numbers from the Census Bureau to tell us how many millions of people don't have insurance.

But it's also about making sure that people with insurance can keep it and that costs for everyone don't keep rising. That's really the whole central point of this entire effort.

BLOCK: And when you think, Julie, about this speech in this highest profile venue in a joint session of Congress, how critical is it to you - is the speech, do you think, to the president's efforts to get health care overhaul passed?

ROVNER: Well, it's very important and not all that important, I think all at the same time. You know, that big speech that Bill Clinton gave back in 1993 was incredibly galvanizing to the country. We saw big spike in the polls. But it wore off before Congress actually got to work on a health bill.

President Obama has better timing with his speech, 'cause Congress is obviously already in the middle of this. Still, I think one speech can really only do so much. He's not going to turn a lot of votes around with a single appearance, no matter how good he or the speech really is.

BLOCK: But one thing that the speech does appear to have done is to get some movement out of the Senate Finance Committee. What's going on there?

ROVNER: That's right. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, who's been meeting with that so-called Gang of Six - three Democrats and three Republicans - over the weekend, offered them a proposal that gave a lot of his fellow Democrats a lot of heartburn. He's been trying to reach out to those Republicans.

This morning, he came out and said he was going to go ahead with the committee vote with or without those Republicans the week after next. On the other hand, he said he hasn't given up quite on maybe still getting their support.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana; Chairman, Finance Committee): I know that almost all negotiations, you have to almost wait until the last instant before things tend to break favorably. There's - we've all invested so much time and effort in this. I know that several of my Republican colleagues very much want to be part of this. They want to be. And they know and I know there's still time.

BLOCK: Senator Baucus there, Julie, saying there's still time to get Republicans on board. Do they absolutely need Republican votes for this bill?

ROVNER: Well, it depends who you talk to. It's probably less important to get Republican votes than to get a bill out of the Finance Committee. It's the last committee they need to get a bill to the Senate floor. But a lot of Democrats say that Republicans in that room have been trying to slow-walk Senator Baucus to just run out the clock, never had any intention of signing onto the bill.

On the other hand, a lot of moderate Democrats in the Senate say that they won't vote for a bill, any bill that doesn't have at least some Republicans on it. So it's not really a matter so much of getting Republican votes, as it is getting those moderate Democrats that they might need. In fact, just yesterday, Nebraska Democrat Ben Nelson said that he wasn't going to vote for a bill that didn't have at least some Republicans on it.

So it continues to be a balancing act in the Senate, and we will have to see how this all comes out.

BLOCK: Okay. Julie, thank you.

ROVNER: You're welcome.

BLOCK: That's NPR health policy correspondent Julie Rovner.

And you can hear the president's speech tonight and analysis in our special coverage on many NPR stations across the country and at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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