Democrats near deal to "fast-track" health bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Democrats are near a deal to ram through legislation overhauling the U.S. healthcare system, overriding Republican objections to one of President Barack Obama’s top policy goals.

A nurse checks the oxygen levels of an unidentified patient in this May 7, 2003 file photo. REUTERS/Darren Staples

Party aides said on Friday Democratic leaders who control both chambers of Congress had reached a tentative agreement to fast-track a pending health package, which would prevent Republicans from blocking it.

The plan to push a healthcare package through Congress, which could be formally agreed upon next week as part of a final budget resolution, would enrage Republicans who had hoped to have a significant say in proposed changes to the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry.

“We are prepared to do this because we are not confident Republicans are going to work with us,” one party aide said. “This is the direction we’re heading,” another aide said.

Obama and fellow Democrats in Congress aim to pass by the end of the year a sweeping measure to revamp the healthcare system and provide insurance to all Americans. Major fights over costs and the role of government in individuals’ medical care are certain.

The tentative agreement on using a fast-track procedure was reached among Democratic leaders from the Senate and the House of Representatives and their appointed negotiators, who are now working to combine budget proposals passed by each chamber.

Democrats enjoy a solid majority in the House and can pass legislation there at will. In the 100-seat Senate, however, they command 58 votes and normally need at least two Republicans to join them if they are to reach the 60-vote majority needed to overcome procedural hurdles.

The fast-track option, known as “reconciliation,” would attach budget protections to healthcare reform legislation that is expected to move through Congress later this year. Budget bills can pass with a simple 51 vote majority in the Senate and are not threatened by procedural hurdles.

Democrats have argued it is a way to overcome Republican objections, which have centered on a proposal to establish a public health insurance plan. Republican say such a plan would drive private insurers out of business, but Democrats say it would inject needed competition into the insurance market.

Republicans, who already have accused Obama’s Democrats of ditching all pretense of bipartisanship, reacted angrily.

“Fast-tracking a major legislative overhaul such as health care reform or a new national energy tax without the benefit of a full and transparent debate does a disservice to the American people,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.

“And it would make it absolutely clear they (Democrats) intend to carry out their plans on a purely partisan basis,” McConnell said.

Several key Democrats have also objected to the fast-track plan, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus who on Friday told reporters he wanted broad bipartisan support to provide a “much more sustainable” result.

“If we jam something down somebody’s throat it is not sustainable,” Baucus said.

There are competing theories on the threat of invoking the fast-track procedure. Some Senate aides said it may prompt Republicans to work with Democrats while other say it will make them so angry that they will essentially boycott talks.

Editing by Vicki Allen