Key group of lawmakers nearing healthcare deal

WASHINGTON Sun Sep 13, 2009 7:15pm EDT

1 of 19. President Barack Obama delivers a speech on healthcare before a joint session of Congress in Washington, September 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A key group of U.S. senators was "very close" to agreement on healthcare reform, one of its members said on Sunday, suggesting Congress was nearer to meeting President Barack Obama's goal of passing a reform bill this year.

"We think we are very close to an agreement," said Senator Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and part of the "Gang of Six" bipartisan group that is trying to forge consensus, on "Fox News Sunday."

Lawmakers have struggled to find common ground in the debate over healthcare reform, hampering Obama's efforts to push through his top domestic policy priority.

Raucous town hall meetings over the summer showed many voters were unconvinced Washington had a plan that would improve their healthcare without imposing federal bureaucracy or saddling taxpayers with unsustainable public debt.

The revamp of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry seeks to make affordable health insurance available to most of the estimated 46 million uninsured Americans and curb runaway medical costs.

In an interview on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes" that aired on Sunday night, Obama sounded confident that Congress would succeed in passing healthcare reform although he acknowledged that "we haven't gotten much cooperation" from Republicans.

"I believe that we will have enough votes to pass not just any healthcare bill, but a good healthcare bill that helps the American people, reduces costs, actually over the long-term controls our deficit," Obama said, according to a transcript released before the broadcast.

"I'm confident that we've got that," he added.

STICKING POINT

One of the biggest sticking points is whether the reform bill would include a government health insurance plan or "public option" to compete with private insurers, something Obama has supported but many conservatives fear would undermine the current system.

Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican who is among the core Gang of Six, said the public option was not under consideration. Instead, plans for non-profit cooperatives that would be privately run but receive some government help were gaining support.

The public option is opposed by insurers and Republicans, as well as some fiscally conservative Democrats.

"We'll be using the co-op as an option at this point, as the means for injecting competition in the process," Snowe said on CBS's "Face the Nation."

The cooperatives are also likely to be a feature in a bill that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, is expected to put forward on Tuesday.

In a televised speech on healthcare reform to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, Obama said: "The public option is only a means to that end. We should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal."

But even as signs of a compromise emerged, deep divisions remained. Senator Jay Rockefeller, a liberal Democrat, dismissed the cooperative idea as outdated and impractical and said he still favored a public option.

"If there were a good alternative, I would certainly have to look at it," he said on ABC's This Week. "I haven't found one."

(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Eric Walsh and Philip Barbara)