Senate Democrat aims to end healthcare deadlock
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A key U.S. Senate Democrat may seek to end a stalemate on healthcare legislation by offering a proposal next week prior to President Barack Obama's highly anticipated address to Congress, Democratic aides said on Saturday.
Such a proposal from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus would be based on various suggestions and possible provisions discussed in recent months by committee members, the aides said. Lawmakers are trying to craft a plan to overhaul the $2.5 trillion U.S. health care system and reduce the estimated 46 million Americans without health insurance.
Two aides said Baucus might present a proposal to "The Gang of Six" -- three Democrats and three Republicans who have struggled to find common ground -- ahead of their meeting, which is set for Tuesday.
Their effort may be the last hope for bipartisan healthcare legislation before Democrats are forced to decide whether to move forward without significant Republican support.
"Baucus is expected to offer a proposal prior to the meeting so that the 'Gang of Six' will have an opportunity to review it before they sit down together," one aide said.
But another aide said matters were fluid and it is uncertain how it would play out in the next few days before Obama makes an address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday. The president is expected to lay out his healthcare plans for wary lawmakers and an increasingly skeptical public.
Overhauling the U.S. healthcare system is Obama's top domestic policy priority and a key test of his presidency.
The Democratic-led Congress has struggled to craft healthcare legislation, and most Republicans have fought it. In the House of Representatives, three committees have approved changes to one bill. In the Senate, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has approved its version but Baucus's Finance Committee has failed to produce one.
If Baucus is unable to reach a bipartisan agreement with the group of six, he will likely move a bill with just Democrats -- and possibly Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who has broken ranks with her party before, most notably in backing Obama's economic stimulus package this year.
The House bill and the one from the Senate health committee call for the creation of a new government-run insurance program -- often called the "public option" -- that would compete with private health insurers.
Republicans and insurance companies strongly oppose the idea. But many liberal Democrats call it an indispensable part of healthcare legislation, saying it is vital to make coverage affordable. This proposed new program would be in addition to existing large government insurance programs such as Medicare for the elderly and disabled and Medicaid for the poor.
The Senate Finance Committee has jurisdiction over major elements of the healthcare legislation effort, including any savings in Medicare and Medicaid and taxes that would help pay for the nearly $1 trillion, 10-year price tag.
On Friday, Baucus said he wanted to move "soon" to put a bill together. He said he would meet with the group of six senators on Tuesday to "take stock of where we are and determine how to best pass real reform."
Baucus' statement came as the White House and many other Democrats appeared to be giving up on the bipartisan talks. He omitted any mention of the group's commitment to getting some support from Republicans -- a break from previous comments.
Concerns about healthcare legislation escalated during August as lawmakers met constituents in their home districts during the congressional recess. Opinion polls have shown Americans increasingly concerned about the cost and complexity of proposals in Congress.
House Republican Representative John Kline said on Saturday "it's time to press the 'reset' button on health care reform" to stop "the government takeover that threatens American jobs."
"Democrats have crafted this legislation behind closed doors, creating a partisan blueprint that, at last count, clocked in at more than 1,000 pages. It's complicated, it's convoluted, and it's quite simply not going to work," Kline said in the weekly Republican radio address.
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Lisa Richwine; Editing by Will Dunham)
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