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Obama: "Now Is the Season for Action"

Updated at 7:10 p.m. ET

President Obama tonight plans to tell a joint session of Congress and the American people he would like health care reform to meet three basic goals: more security and stability for those with health insurance, access to insurance for those who do not have it, and ways to slow the growth of health care costs. According to excerpts of his prepared remarks, the president will say his plan incorporates ideas from both Democrats and Republicans.

"Now is the season for action," Mr. Obama intends to say. "Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together, and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care."

The president will tell the Congress he continues to seek common ground -- but he issued a warning to opponents of his plan who have used lies and exaggerations to fight it.

"My door is always open," he will say. "But know this: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it... If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out. And I will not accept the status quo as a solution. Not this time. Not now."

The president will note that it has been nearly a century since the federal government first called for health care reform under former President Theodore Roosevelt.

"I am not the first President to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last," he will say.

Mr. Obama will tell Congress that the stalled debate has brought the country to a breaking point, with soaring health care costs burdening many Americans with extraordinary financial hardship.

"These are not primarily people on welfare," he will say. "These are middle-class Americans."

Mr. Obama will repeat his common mantra that under his plan, no one who currently has health insurance will be required to change their coverage or their doctor.

"Let me repeat this: nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have," he plans to say.

He plan, he will say, will prohibit insurance companies from denying consumers coverage because of pre-existing conditions. It will also prohibit recission, the practice of dropping customers' coverage after they get sick, along with caps on coverage. It will limit out-of-pocket expenses. Insurance companies would be required to cover routine checkups and preventive care.

"That makes sense, it saves money, and it saves lives," he plans to say.

The president will argue that the creation of a health insurance exchange -- a "marketplace" from which individuals and small businesses can shop for competitively priced insurance plans -- will keep people insured, even if they lose their job or decide to start a business. Insurance companies will have an incentive to participate in the exchange, he will say, because it will let them compete for millions of new customers.

"As one big group, these customers will have greater leverage to bargain with the insurance companies for better prices and quality coverage," Mr. Obama intends to say.

Facing near unanimous Republican opposition and a serious divide among his own Democrats, President Obama is using a highly unusual address to Congress on Wednesday to sell the country on the need to reform America's health care system.

Obama intends to follow up the speech with an appearance Saturday in Minneapolis, the White House announced.

The president took office vowing to overhaul a system whose costs are raging out of control while as many as 50 million Americans are without health insurance. Thousands of households talk bankruptcy daily because of medical bills and health care consumes nearly 20 percent of the gross domestic product.

But a failure among Mr. Obama's fellow Democrats to solidify their support behind his reforms, intense Republican attacks against the overhaul - including blatant falsehoods - and sagging poll numbers pushed the president into making Wednesday's speech.

"I think the president's going to move the ball down the field tonight," Senior White House Adviser David Axelrod said Wednesday night on the CBS Evening News. "And we're in a position to be right on the schedule that we had hoped, and get something done in the month of October."

So far, Obama has been unable to take full advantage of his party's significant majorities in both houses of Congress. Special Report: Health Care

While polls show most Americans want to see the system changed, Republicans have inflamed the debate, and some moderate Democrats in so-called swing states - fearing punishment at the polls next year - have refused to back Mr. Obama on the government-run public health care option, a measure White Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told CBS' "The Early Show" was still on the table.

"What we're going to hear tonight is, the president's going to speak clearly and directly to the American people about what's in this bill for them," Gibbs said Wednesday.

Discussing Obama's thinking, a senior administration official said the president will make a case for why he believes a government-run option is the best way to introduce greater competition into the system.

Gibbs said Wednesday morning that the president had not yet finished working on the speech.

Even as Obama prepared to speak to a joint session of Congress and a live television audience, the leader of the influential Senate Finance Committee raced to broker a bipartisan agreement on the president's top domestic priority.

Sen. Max Baucus has said the only chance for a bipartisan bill will be to leave the public option out, reports CBS News White House correspondent Chip Reid.

The Montana Democrat's $900 billion plan would offer privately owned cooperatives and charge insurers, drug companies and other health service providers fees to cover the costs. It would also require all Americans to purchase insurance with maximum fines of up to $950 for individuals and $3,800 for families above the poverty level who don't.

Baucus hopes to have an agreement from his "gang of six" senators - three Democrats and three Republicans - before the president's speech this evening. He intends to bring his bill before the full Senate Finance Committee within two weeks, with or without Republican support.

The White House set a high bar for the rare presidential address, acknowledging the huge stakes and creating big expectations about the level of specificity Obama would provide.

The president has stressed repeatedly the broad goals for the sweeping health care overhaul he seeks, but has left the details to lawmakers. Through a hot summer of angry debate, he lost his grip on the process.

Aiming to reclaim it at a pivotal moment and open a final push for a bill, Obama said, "We do intend to get something done this year."

An Associated Press-GfK poll out Wednesday found that American disapproval of Obama's handling of health care has jumped to 52 percent.

The same survey shows that 49 percent now disapprove of his overall performance as president. In July, just 42 percent disapproved of how he was handling his job.

White House: Public Option Still On Table
Steele: Public Option is Socialist
Obama Still Working on Speech

"I'm open to new ideas," the president said in an interview Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America" in which he previewed the themes of his speech. "We're not being rigid and ideological about this thing."

Mr. Obama said in the interview that ambiguity in his plan allowed "opponents of reform to come in and to fill up the airwaves with a lot of nonsense."

That nonsense, he said, includes the "ridiculous idea that we were setting up death panels" or providing health insurance to illegal immigrants.

Republican Party Chairman Michael Steele dismissed the proposal in a separate interview, saying "the idea that the federal government can come in and be the same as Allstate in providing insurance, that's ridiculous." He also characterized the public option as socialist in an interview on CBS' "The Early Show".

Gibbs argued that a government-run option is "supported by a majority of people in this country" and said that currently "there's nobody to compete" in a situation where a private health care insurance company dominates the market.

Sitting in first lady Michelle Obama's box in the House gallery will be Americans who have suffered from high costs and insurance practices, and Obama will mention some specifically in his remarks.

Obama will appear before lawmakers a day after their return from an August recess marked by contentious town halls and much misinformation and confusion about what a health care overhaul may look like.

At a news conference Wednesday, House Minority Leader John Boehner said the president should "hit the reset button" and start over on health care reform.

"I hope he's been listening to the American people, because I think over the course of August they've raised their voices loud and clear that they don't want this massive government takeover of our health care system," Boehner said. "But it appears that the president's going to double down tonight and try to put lipstick on this pig and call it something else."

A senior administration official said Obama has ceased worrying about whether he gets any Republican participation. "If they don't want to, we can't worry about that," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to more freely discuss behind-the-scenes thinking.

But that is no longer Obama's biggest difficulty, a fact underscored by the conflicting advice he was getting from within his own party.

"I hope he will call for a pragmatic, bipartisan approach," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., head of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition. "I support necessary change, but not radical change."

Liberal Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said Obama must say he is prepared to fight for a public option. "That's how bills get passed," Weiner said. "It's that or a retreat."

The liberal group the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, meanwhile, placed an ad in the New York Times today showing a petition signed by Obama campaign staffers, volunteers and donors arguing that a health care bill lacking a public option would be "letting the insurance companies win" and would not reflect "change we can believe in."

Correction: An earlier version of this story said placed an ad in the New York Times. In fact, it was the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

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