President Barack Obama on Thursday sought to convince Republicans to support overhaul of the U.S. healthcare industry, his signature domestic policy goal, as the measures moved on a fast-track through congressional committees with only Democratic support.
Republicans expected little success with their attempts to modify a 1,000-page Democratic-written plan being debated in three committees in the House of Representatives with the aim of finishing work this week.
House and Senate leaders are under pressure from Obama to complete work on healthcare before August, both to avoid delaying his other domestic goals and to give the overhaul a good chance of becoming law by October.
Their hope is to help rein in soaring costs in the $2.5 trillion industry, for which Americans pay more for medical care per capita than in any other country but 46 million remain without insurance.
The legislation would guarantee no one could be turned down for insurance but would require everyone to have policies and would require businesses to buy coverage for their workers or face hefty penalties. It would impose new rules on health insurers and set up a government plan to compete with private insurers.
In the Senate, one committee on Wednesday approved its version with no Republican votes. In the second, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, still hoping to write a bipartisan bill that includes the taxes to pay for the $1 trillion plan to expand healthcare, met behind closed doors with leading committee members of both parties.
All participants clearly want to reach an agreement, Baucus said after the meeting.
Obama met at the White House with moderate Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who has been central to the Finance Committee talks and is one of a handful of Republicans who Democrats have hoped would vote for the legislation.
SENATOR ASKS FOR PATIENCE
Snow urged Obama to be patient and said she and other Republicans on the Finance panel were negotiating in good faith, but it was a huge task. The legislation would make significant changes to one-sixth of the U.S. economy.
I assured him that I agree with his goal and his commitment and that to give us the time that's necessary to work through in a deliberative fashion, she told reporters after the meeting.
It's really important that we do all we can to ... have the sturdiest product possible that can emerge from the finance committee, Snowe said.
On Wednesday, Obama met with four Republican senators to discuss ways to eliminate waste in healthcare and lower costs while improving the quality of care.
House Republicans argued that they had not had time to review the 1,000-page bill and that its higher taxes on the wealthy would harm small business owners who would be caught in the tax net. They disputed Democrats' estimates of a $1 trillion cost over 10 years, saying it would be higher.
The $1.5 trillion that this plan's going to cost is going to be a new tax on small businesses that will destroy more American jobs, House Republican John Boehner told reporters.
The House plan would include a tax on wealthy taxpayers, which Republicans said would catch in its net small business owners.
House Education and Labor Committee Republicans objected to the rapid pace and their inability to change the bill. We had 24 hours to look at a bill and we're going to ram this through today, Republican Tom Price said.
The House bill received support from one important group the American Medical Association in a letter to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Showing some of the sentiment driving the reform effort, a senior Senate Democrat criticized health insurance companies for what he described as coercive practices that have forced some Americans into bankruptcy.
I'm not neutral on insurance companies, John Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said at a subcommittee hearing on competition in the healthcare industry. They're always the shark swimming under the water, pulling people down -- and they do.