(For a TAKE A LOOK on healthcare, click on [nN07323916])
* Baucus says CBO prices bill at less than $900 billion
* Reid says confident talks will succeed
* Obama pitches reform in North Carolina, Virginia
(Updates with House panel meets Thursday, details)
By Donna Smith and Jackie Frank
WASHINGTON, July 29 Democrats broke a logjam
in President Barack Obama's drive to revamp the costly U.S.
healthcare system on Wednesday when a group of party
conservatives accepted a compromise that allowed an overhaul
bill to advance in the House of Representatives.
The agreement with four conservative congressmen from
Obama's Democratic Party sparked immediate grumbling from
liberals, Republicans and others even as the breakthrough
allowed a key House committee to take up the bill.
Obama, whose chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, worked with
members of Congress to craft the compromise, said he was
grateful that lawmakers "are working so hard to find common
"Those efforts are extraordinarily constructive in
strengthening this legislation and bringing down its cost,"
Since taking office six months ago, Obama has made an
overhaul of healthcare, which accounts for one-sixth of the
U.S. economy, his top legislative priority.
He insists it is crucial to a broader economic recovery and
has pushed lawmakers -- due to recess for a month soon -- to
forge a deal quickly to rein in healthcare costs, improve care
and cover most of the 46 million uninsured Americans.
Representative Mike Ross, a leader of the conservative
Democrats known as the "Blue Dogs," told reporters the
agreement, which followed lengthy negotiations with party
leaders and the White House, would shave $100 billion off the
bill's price tag of at least $1 trillion, making it more
palatable to fiscal conservatives in both parties.
The Blue Dogs had put the brakes on the bill in the Energy
and Commerce Committee, the last of three House committees to
vote on it, over concerns about costs and other issues.
With the agreement, the bill was to move through that
committee by Friday, even if House leaders later change it
before the full House votes in September.
But Democratic Representative Eliot Engel said House
leaders had left liberals on the panel with little choice but
to vote for it as it stands or stall its progress.
"In a way, a number of us feel we've been held hostage,"
While the bill still includes a government-run insurance
program, liberals said a requirement that Washington negotiate
prices with doctors and hospitals -- putting the public plan on
the same footing as private insurers -- would make coverage
unaffordable for many.
The compromise would exempt 86 percent of small businesses
from being required to contribute to health insurance for their
workers. It would also allow states to set up insurance
cooperatives alongside a national government health insurance
Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee met in
closed session to go over the details before a full panel
meeting and votes on Thursday, and probably on Friday.
SENATE EDGING CLOSER
In the Senate, Republicans and Democrats negotiating a
healthcare reform deal also got a boost from congressional
budget analysts who priced their bill at less than $900 billion
over 10 years -- below some cost estimates of $1 trillion or
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said the
Congressional Budget Office reported the plan would reduce the
federal deficit, spur employer-provided health coverage and
provide insurance coverage to 95 percent of Americans.
Three Democrats and three Republicans on the Senate Finance
panel have edged closer to a deal this week that could form the
heart of an eventual Senate healthcare plan.
"I am confident they will get a bill ... a bipartisan bill
will come out of that committee," Senate Democratic Leader
Harry Reid told reporters.
Senator Charles Grassley, one of the panel's three
Republicans involved in the talks, said in a Reuters interview
the negotiators were making great progress but tough issues
remained on financing and cost containment.
Senate Finance negotiations focused on a plan that would
use nonprofit cooperatives to compete with private insurers to
drive down costs, not the government option plan favored by
Obama and many other Democrats.
The Senate panel also is likely to back a tax on high-cost
insurance policies to raise revenue and keep costs down.
Dick Durbin, the Senate's second-ranked Democrat, said the
lack of a public insurance option in the Finance Committee bill
was not what he and many other Democrats wanted, but he was
encouraging senators to stay patient.
Obama had asked both the Senate and House to come up with
initial draft bills before the August recess, but that deadline
is dead in the Senate and nearly impossible in the House. When
they return, they will negotiate a joint bill that Obama hopes
to sign into law this year.
Healthcare industry officials welcomed the efforts.
"We applaud the efforts of Baucus and Grassley to try to
make it a bipartisan approach because we think that will be
thoroughly vetted and one where I think we're going to get more
sustainable solutions coming out of it," Angela Braly, chief
executive of health insurer WellPoint Inc WLP.N, said in an
interview with Reuters.
A New York Times/CBS News poll showed 69 percent of
Americans were concerned their care would suffer if there were
on a government-run plan. But 49 percent said they backed
fundamental changes and 66 percent feared losing their
insurance if the government does not act.
The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
Obama traveled to North Carolina and Virginia on Wednesday
for campaign-style events to tell Americans why insurance
reform meant more security and stability for them and their
(Additional reporting by David Alexander, Susan Cornwell, Kim
Dixon and Richard Cowan; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by