Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol pushed for a healthcare reform deal on Tuesday, with Senate Democrats near agreement with three Republicans on a plan unlikely to include a government-run insurance option backed by President Barack Obama.
In closed-door meetings and private negotiating sessions, members of Congress struggled to make progress on a healthcare overhaul before heading home for their August recess.
Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee heard an update from Chairman Max Baucus on bipartisan negotiations and said they were confident they were close to success -- even if the full panel does not manage to take up the bill before the break starts on August 7.
Whether we get through markup or not I can't tell you today. But I am confident we'll have a concept we'll agree on, Senator John Kerry, a member of the panel, told reporters.
Obama has pushed for a measure that will rein in healthcare costs, improve care and cover most of the 46 million uninsured Americans, making it his top legislative priority.
The negotiations between three Democrats and three Republicans on the panel have zeroed in on a plan that would use nonprofit cooperatives to compete with insurers to drive down costs, members say, not the public plan favored by Obama and many Democrats.
The panel also is likely to back a tax on high-cost insurance policies to try to raise revenue and keep costs down.
The White House said it would wait until it sees the bill to comment on the cooperative approach, which is certain to disappoint some Democrats even if it wins over the three Republicans involved in the negotiations.
'NOT A NICE HISTORY'
I have done a lot of reading on the history of co-ops and it is not a nice history, Democratic Senator John Rockefeller told reporters after the closed-door meeting of Democrats.
Obama's drive for a broad overhaul of the healthcare industry has been stalled in the Senate and House of Representatives, both controlled by his fellow Democrats. It has been hit by a deluge of criticism over the cost, scope and funding of the more than $1 trillion measure.
Republicans in both chambers have slammed the plans as an expensive first step toward a government takeover of healthcare. No Republican has come out in favor of any of the plans so far, although three Senate Republicans have worked with Baucus to find agreement.
Obama, who over the past week has lobbied hard for the overhaul plan, said there was no time to lose.
The costs of doing nothing are trillions of dollars in costs over the next couple of decades -- trillions, not billions, Obama told a town hall meeting conducted by AARP, a lobbying group for seniors.
I understand people being scared that this is going to be way too costly, he said. It's not too costly if we start making changes right now.
An August deadline to approve initial versions of the bill is dead in the Senate and endangered in the House, where conservative Democrats have blocked its passage in the last of three House committees that must consider the bill.
The so-called Blue Dog Democrats complained the cost savings are inadequate in the bill and blocked a vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. They met late into the night on Monday with panel chairman Henry Waxman without agreement.
Each chamber hopes to get bills passed in the last remaining committee before heading home. The House leaves for its break on Friday.
We're very optimistic that both the Senate Finance Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee -- that is the third of the House committees -- will finally finish working on their legislation, said Linda Douglass, a spokesman for the White House Office of Health Reform.
That means that all five congressional committees will have put forth legislation. There will be legislation you can take a look at, she said.
House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer said so far he saw no reason to hold lawmakers back from the recess for more work on the bill, but he said there were ongoing positive discussions with the Blue Dogs. I think the Blue Dogs want to get there, Hoyer said.