By Jeffrey Young - 03/03/10 01:11 AM EST
President Barack Obama on Wednesday will seek to end the confusion that has enveloped the Democrats’ effort to reform the nation’s healthcare system.
In the weeks since Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) deprived Democrats of their supermajority in the upper chamber, Obama has taken an increasingly strong hand in guiding the Democrat-controlled Congress forward. But questions remain about what he wants them to advance and, perhaps more importantly, how and when.
Over the last month, Obama has taken the steering wheel, announcing and moderating a major health summit while releasing his own legislative plan. On Wednesday, he will instruct Congress how to proceed.
Some lawmakers, lobbyists and Obama himself last month floated the idea of moving a scaled-back bill.
After Brown’s triumph, Obama said, “I would advise that we try to move quickly to coalesce around those elements in the package that people agree on.”
But on Tuesday, Obama made clear in a letter to congressional leaders that he is not interested in a narrow measure.
“Piecemeal reform is not the best way,” Obama wrote, extending olive branches to the GOP by tweaking the $950 billion measure plan he released last week.
In the face of unified Republican opposition, it has been evident that the bill’s only path to Obama’s desk would be for the House to take up the Senate’s healthcare reform bill under reconciliation rules.
Most of the changes Obama outlined on Tuesday refer to bills from Senate Republicans, including Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), John Barrasso (Wyo.), John McCain (Ariz.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa).
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Obama’s proposal would be a big help in turning “no” votes into “yes” votes. “It’ll be a different bill than either the House or the Senate bill,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “It will hopefully take the strengths of both, and I think if that happens, as is normally the case, when bills change, members look at it somewhat differently.”
Regardless, rounding up the votes in the House will be an enormous challenge for Democratic leaders.
Democrats are hoping that Obama’s speech on Wednesday will end all confusion on the “next step” question.
The Speaker’s spokesman, Nadeam Elshami, said she had been misunderstood. “All she was saying was that the president’s fix to the Senate bill will be smaller than the House bill,” he said.
Hoyer, too, indicated that a smaller bill might be the end result. “Obviously, the president has indicated he wants to have a comprehensive bill,” he said on CNBC last week. “But the president, like all of us, understands that in a democracy, you do the possible.”
But Hoyer on Tuesday threw cold water on reports that Obama would unveil a new, smaller healthcare plan.
“I don’t have reason to believe that that’s accurate,” he told The Hill Tuesday.
Some political analysts say Obama is partially to blame for not getting a health bill passed in 2009, noting that the president allowed Democratic infighting over the public option to fester.
Had Obama said the public option was dead last fall in his joint address to Congress, some say, healthcare reform could have been signed into law before Brown’s win.
Politically vulnerable Democrats are not sold on a big bill. They say they want to pursue a pared-back approach, noting that the comprehensive strategy did not yield results last year.
Republicans are gearing up for a battle.
“The American people want the president to start over with a clean sheet of paper on step-by-step common-sense reforms to lower healthcare costs, and with this [Tuesday] letter [to Congress], he has officially said no,” House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.
Jared Allen contributed to this article.