Obama, Democrats Tout 'Significant Progress,’ but No Deal Yet on Health Care

January 14, 2010 - 6:16 AM
Public support for the health care remake continues to drop, perhaps in part because of the messy debate in Congress, and lawmakers are feeling the press of other issues, from unemployment to ballooning budget deficits.
health care, White House, harry reid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., center, walks into the West Wing of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010, to discuss health care with other Democrats and President Obama. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington (AP) - Striving to close the deal on health care, President Barack Obama planned a trip to Capitol Hill on Thursday to urge rank-and-file House Democrats to yield on key issues still standing in the way of a historic legislative achievement.
 
Obama's late afternoon visit comes amid intense White House negotiations with Democratic leaders aimed at settling core differences between the House and Senate that must be resolved before the sweeping overhaul legislation can pass.
 
Public support for the health care remake continues to drop, perhaps in part because of the messy debate in Congress, and lawmakers are feeling the press of other issues, from unemployment to ballooning budget deficits.
 
Late Wednesday, Obama and senior Democrats emerged from marathon health care talks with a declaration that they had made tough gains -- but no deal just yet. The same group of leaders was to meet again at the White House on Thursday, pressing for the framework of an agreement within days.
 
House Democrats are uneasy over concessions they are being asked to make to preserve the 60 votes needed to pass the bill in the Senate. That includes dropping the government-run insurance option liberals have fought for and accepting some form of a tax on high-cost health insurance plans adamantly opposed by many House Democrats and by labor unions.
 
House Democratic leaders are pushing for more generous subsidies to help make health insurance affordable to a greater number of middle-class households, as well as other concessions.
 
The bill would extend coverage to more than 30 million Americans now uninsured, bar insurance companies from denying coverage to people with medical problems and attempt to slow the ruinous rate of increase in health care costs.
 
Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., predicted Obama would find a supportive audience.
 
"I think there is a very mature understanding here that no one ever gets everything they want," Andrews said. "I think a lot of Democrats in the House who have misgivings about particulars will support the whole."
 
Wednesday's unusually long meeting at the White House -- it began at midmorning and ended after sunset -- underscored the urgency they and Obama feel about completing legislation on which they have staked so much.
 
The White House said the leaders covered all aspects of the legislation but released no details about where progress had been achieved or when the laborious process would end.
 
"Prospects of reaching agreement between the Senate and the House are better than they were 24 hours ago. We're getting close," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said late Wednesday.
 
The House and Senate have passed broadly similar bills, but they differ on key details, such as the insurance tax and the government coverage option.
 
Hoyer and others said Wednesday's talks ranged over numerous areas of disagreement. A key point was Obama's demand for a tax on high-cost insurance plans, a proposal designed to slow the rise in health care costs. Several union leaders were also at the White House during the day, although it was not clear whether they met with lawmakers.
 
The president's personal commitment in time was extraordinary.
 
Officials said Obama ducked in and out of the meeting with top Senate and House Democrats in the Cabinet Room throughout the day while also leading the U.S. response to Tuesday's devastating earthquake in Haiti.
 
The House and Senate passed the bills with just one Republican vote, and the GOP was not invited to the White House talks. Republicans say they still have a chance to derail the bill.
 
The proposed tax on insurance plans aside, the two sides worked for middle ground on the overall cost of the legislation and the size and extent of subsidies that would go to Americans who need help in paying for insurance.
 
The subsidies in the House bill are more generous than in the Senate measure, and it appeared lawmakers were in search of additional money. Susan Feeney, spokeswoman for the American Health Care Association, said White House and Senate officials recently have asked the nursing home industry to agree to additional concessions.
 
Unclear was the fate of the proposed tax on high-cost insurance plans, and the details of a Senate-approved payroll tax increase on the wealthy.
 
Union officials familiar with the negotiations said the White House would like a deal on the high-cost insurance plan tax by Friday. Options being considered to lessen the impact on union members included raising the threshold at which the tax would be levied -- it's $23,000 for family plans in the Senate-passed bill -- and exempting collective bargaining agreements negotiated before 2013 from the tax.
 
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Associated Press writers Erica Werner, David Espo, Alan Fram, Sam Hananel, Ben Feller and Mark S. Smith contributed to this report.