WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Tuesday she was sure Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate would produce a final healthcare reform plan that would hold insurers accountable and make medical coverage affordable.
She did not promise the legislation would include the government-run insurance plan favored by the House but rejected by the Senate. Democratic lawmakers are now trying to reconcile competing versions of healthcare reform into a bill that can be passed by the full Congress.
Pelosi told reporters measures passed by the House and Senate to revamp the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system would be unified within weeks into a historic bill for President Barack Obama to sign.
“There’s much we have in common in both our bills and we will reconcile this legislation,” Pelosi said.
“We want our final product ... to ensure affordability for the middle class, accountability for the insurance companies as it provides accessibility by lowering cost for every stage.”
The House bill which passed in early November would set up a government-run insurance program, but the Senate bill which passed on December 24 would not.
Pelosi, who has backed off demands for the so-called public option in the final bill, said, “We will have what we need to hold the insurance companies accountable.”
“I contend that whatever we have coming out of this bill will hold them accountable and they’ll be crying out for a public option one of these days,” Pelosi said.
Pelosi met with House committee chairmen to map out strategy and set priorities as they begin negotiations with Senate Democrats to iron out differences.
Democrats aim for the House and Senate to each pass this final version and deliver it to Obama within weeks.
Pelosi and House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer were to meet with Obama later on Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senator Richard Durbin, the second leading Senate Democrat, were expected to join the conversation by telephone.
Healthcare reform is Obama’s top legislative priority. Republicans solidly oppose it and have threatened new procedural roadblocks in the Senate to slow things down. Democrats have shut them out of the closed door negotiations.
“These secret deliberations are a breeding ground for more of the kickbacks, shady deals and special-interest provisions that have become business as usual in Washington,” House Republican Leader John Boehner said in a statement.
Democrats in the House and Senate are seeking to resolve differences over abortion funding restrictions, new taxes to pay for the healthcare overhaul as well as whether to include the proposed government-run health insurance program.
The stakes are high for businesses and insurance companies, as well as for Obama and members of Congress, who are preparing for the November congressional elections.
Businesses that provide coverage to employees have been struggling to cope with steadily rising insurance costs. Insurers stand to gain millions of new customers and stock prices have strengthened on the belief that the final bill will not include the public insurance backed by liberal Democrats.
Polls show that the public is wary of the proposed overhaul and what it could mean for their household budgets and medical coverage. That unease could spill over into the November elections where Republicans stand to gain some seats.
Democrats are anxious to settle their differences, deliver a major legislative victory to Obama and begin highlighting the benefits of healthcare reform, which aims to rein in rapidly increasing costs and would prohibit insurance companies from excluding people from coverage due to pre-existing conditions.
Democrats have little room to maneuver as they strive to maintain the 60 votes in the 100-seat Senate and at least 218 in the 435-seat House needed to pass the legislation.
Representative Chris Van Hollen said that in exchange for giving up the public option the House would insist on strong accountability measures for insurance companies.
He said the House also would push to include in the final bill provisions that eliminate the anti-trust exemption for health insurance companies. Such a move, however, could lose critical support in the Senate which has left the anti-trust exemption intact.
Additional reporting by Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro, editing by David Alexander and Alan Elsner