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Obama to deliver health care address to Congress

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama will deliver a major prime-time address to Congress next week on his plans to overhaul the nation’s health care system, opening an urgent autumn push to gain control of the debate that has been slipping from his grasp under withering Republican-led attacks.

Scheduling of the speech next Wednesday night, just a day after lawmakers return from their August recess, underscores the determination of the White House to confront critics of Obama’s overhaul and to buck up supporters who have been thrown on the defensive.

Allies have been urging the president to be more specific about his plans and to take a greater role in the debate, and aides have signaled he will do that in the address to a joint session of Congress in the House chamber.

The speech’s timing also suggests that top Democrats have all but given up hope for a bipartisan breakthrough by Senate Finance Committee negotiators. The White House had given those six lawmakers until Sept. 15 to draft a plan, but next week’s speech comes well ahead of that deadline.

It follows an August recess in which critics of Obama’s health proposals dominated many public forums. Approval ratings for Obama, and for his health care proposals, dropped during August.

Senior adviser David Axelrod had said Tuesday that Obama was considering being “more prescriptive” about what he feels Congress must include in a health bill. Axelrod said all the key ideas for revising health care are “on the table,” suggesting that Obama will not offer major new proposals but may talk more specifically about his top priorities and perhaps add details to pending plans.

The president hopes to “take the reins of this debate and take it to the finish line,” said an administration official who spoke Wednesday on condition of anonymity to discuss White House strategy.

Many advocates of sweeping health care changes — which would include health coverage for virtually every American, greater competition among insurers and incentives to increase the quality of care instead of the number of medical procedures performed — welcomed the president’s more direct role. Obama and congressional Democrats lost momentum during the August recess, they say, and the president’s high profile and still-considerable personal popularity are needed to change the dynamic.

“He’s got to get into the nitty-gritty and embrace very concrete proposals,” said Ralph Neas, head of the National Coalition on Health Care.

Richard Kirsch, national campaign manager for the liberal advocacy group Health Care for America Now, said, “It’s really clear they understand they have to provide more presidential leadership, more presidential direction.”

Kirsch said Obama doesn’t have to provide legislative language, but he must detail “the contours of the reform he needs.”