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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama sought on Thursday to persuade 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.
A handful of Democrats on one of the three House committees trying to fast-track the legislation said they also could not back the Democratic bill, but this was not seen as posing a major obstacle to its passage before both chamber recess in the next two to three weeks.
The focus in Congress remained on finding ways to pay for the estimated $1 trillion cost over 10 years, either through higher taxes or savings in the costly federal Medicare and Medicaid programs. The head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Congress had yet to find a way to pay for the plan.
"The coverage proposals in this legislation would expand federal spending on healthcare to a significant degree and in our analysis so far we don't see other provisions in this legislation reducing federal health spending by a corresponding degree," CBO director Douglas Elmendorf told the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.
The House would pay for about $587 billion of its version with new taxes, including one on the wealthy that Republicans charged would catch small business owners in its net and cost more jobs during the recession.
Senate Finance Committee leaders met behind closed doors to thrash out ways to pay, including perhaps a tax on health insurers at a value of $100 billion over 10 years.
Chairman Max Baucus said he was dismayed that the White House opposed taxing as income the value employers pay for workers' health insurance. This would raise taxes for many wage earners.
"Basically the president is not helping," Baucus said. "He does not want (to change) the exclusion, and that's making it difficult."
After two days of closed-door meetings, Baucus said they were still seeking a bipartisan agreement. "All participants clearly want to reach an agreement," Baucus said.
In a week of speeches and meetings on the issue, Obama made an impassioned plea for Americans to support an overhaul this year, and warned them to expect "scare tactics" from special interest groups opposed to the change.
"The price of doing nothing about healthcare is a price that every business and every family will have to pay," he told a rally in New Jersey for Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine's re-election campaign. "That is unacceptable, that is unsustainable, and we are going to change it in 2009."
Republicans expected little success modifying the 1,000-page Democratic-written plan. An early attempt to strike the government-run health plan proposal was defeated in the Ways and Means Committee that writes tax policy.
House and Senate leaders are under pressure from Obama to complete work on healthcare before their summer recess, both to avoid delaying his other domestic goals and to give the reform a chance of becoming law by October.
The legislation would guarantee no one could be turned down for insurance but would require everyone to have policies and for 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.
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 -- even though 46 million remain without insurance.
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 hope, will vote for the legislation.
Snowe 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 and it was "overly ambitious" to set an August deadline for Senate passage. 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.
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.
Three Democrats on the panel said they did not support it. "I cannot support this bill in its current form," Democrat Bart Stupak said, adding that it did not provide real competition for the insurance industry and could hike costs for consumers.