Congressional Democrats hunted for votes for a mammoth healthcare overhaul on Wednesday as critics attacked the Obama administration's new cost-savings deal with hospitals as a sham.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid met with key Republicans on the issue while supporters of healthcare reform searched for ways to bring down the plan's price tag of at least $1 trillion and pay for it without raising taxes on the middle class and poor.
Senator Charles Grassley, the senior Republican on the Finance Committee, said afterward the effort to hatch a healthcare bill would remain bipartisan but the target of passing a bill before the monthlong August recess might slip.
Bipartisan talks are going to continue, and not continue under a very hard timeline, Grassley said.
Vice President Joe Biden announced the agreement with hospitals to save $155 billion in healthcare spending over 10 years, mainly by lowering charges for health services to the poor and elderly.
But Republicans questioned whether the deal, and a similar $80 billion agreement with drugmakers announced last month, would ultimately provide real cost savings.
Some Democrats also wondered how binding the deals would be and what industries might expect in return.
The administration and congressional Democrats are literally bullying health care groups into cutting backroom deals to fund a government takeover of health care, said House Republican leader John Boehner.
That will increase costs and force millions of Americans out of the health care that they currently have. The American people deserve better, he said.
President Barack Obama has made reform of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry his top legislative priority, and asked Congress to develop plans to reduce healthcare costs and cover most of the 46 million Americans without health insurance.
But lawmakers have struggled to come up with healthcare packages in the Senate and the House of Representatives, as five committees in the two chambers work on bills they would like to pass before the monthlong August recess.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the draft proposal by the House Ways and Means Committee would have $500 billion in Medicare savings over 10 years, a figure that would slightly reduce the amount of revenue the panel would have to raise to pay for the plan.
Democrats have tried to trim cost estimates and find ways to pay for the overhaul to make it more palatable, while Republicans have balked at proposals for a Democratic-backed government-run public insurance option to cover about 46 million uninsured Americans.
In the Democratic-controlled Senate, where Democrats have the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles, party leaders have tried to keep their shaky coalition together while gaining at least some Republican support.
Proposals for possible taxes on some employer-sponsored health benefits have drawn opposition from some Democrats, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer said. What we are trying to do is find a way to get to 60 votes, Schumer told reporters.
Republican Senator Olympia Snowe said lawmakers needed more time to work through the issues and develop a bipartisan package. She planned to discuss the problems with Reid.
I will be urging patience and a willingness to continue to maintain the kind of environment that makes it possible, she told reporters.
She said taxing employer-provided health benefits was off the table, but Democratic Senator Kent Conrad told reporters that all proposals remained alive as Finance Committee members searched for ways to pay for reform.
In his announcement, Biden said hospitals would achieve the savings mostly in Medicare and Medicaid programs but skimped on the details, pointing only to reforms in hospital delivery and payment systems.
As more people are insured, hospitals will bear less of the financial burden of caring for the uninsured and the underinsured, and we'll reduce payments to cover those costs, he said.
Folks, reform is coming. It is on track; it is coming, he said. We have tried for decades -- for decades -- to fix a broken system, and we have never, in my entire tenure in public life, been this close.
Hospital stocks fell on the news of the deal. Universal Health Services was down 3.3 percent at $48.50 per share in mid-afternoon trading, LifePoint Hospitals Inc was down 2.8 percent at $25.25, and Health Management Associates Inc was off 1.2 percent at $5.04.