January 15, 2010 / 4:12 PM / 9 years ago

WRAPUP 2-U.S. Democrats close in on healthcare agreement

(For more on U.S. healthcare reform, click [nN20512341])

* Marathon congressional health talks gain new urgency

* Democrats push for agreement on unpopular plan

* Hoyer says negotiators within days of deal (Adds quotes, details)

By John Whitesides and Donna Smith

WASHINGTON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Congressional Democrats closed in on a final deal on a landmark U.S. healthcare overhaul on Friday, with President Barack Obama pushing them to move quickly in marathon White House negotiating sessions.

Negotiators from the House of Representatives and Senate made “solid progress” in talks that stretched into the early morning on Friday, the White House said, and headed back for another round in the afternoon.

“We are making progress, we are establishing common ground on some of the very few issues that were different in our bills,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of the negotiations.

The talks gained new urgency as polls show the overhaul is increasingly unpopular and Democrats could lose next week’s special Massachusetts election to replace the late Senator Edward Kennedy — costing them their crucial 60th Senate vote.

Democrats are hustling to finish the bill before Obama’s State of the Union speech in early February, when lawmakers hope to turn to an agenda on jobs and the economy ahead of congressional elections in November.

Negotiators want to send the bill’s major provisions to budget analysts for cost estimates within days. Next week they will focus on working out hot-button issues like coverage for abortions and illegal immigrants, House members said.

Democrats scored a breakthrough on Thursday, winning labor union support for a revised tax on high-cost insurance plans that was included in the Senate bill but opposed by unions and many House Democrats.

That cleared one of the biggest remaining hurdles, but they still must resolve issues on how to pay for the plan, the structure of the new insurance exchanges created under the bill, the level of expansion for the Medicaid health program for the poor and other issues.

The House and Senate versions of the overhaul must be melded into one bill and passed again by each chamber before Obama can sign it.

Both bills would extend insurance coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans, create exchanges where individuals can shop for insurance plans and bar insurance practices like refusing coverage to people with pre-existing medical conditions.

Congressional leaders including Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid met in the White House Cabinet room deep into the early morning on Friday. Obama stayed in the meeting until about 1 a.m. EST (0600 GMT).


“They made solid progress toward a final package,” a White House spokesman said.

House-Senate negotiators looking for more revenue are considering expanding the tax for Medicare, the health program for the elderly, to income from investments by the wealthiest Americans.

They also have asked the pharmaceutical industry to kick in at least another $10 billion above the $80 billion it agreed to pay last year in a deal with the White House, industry sources said. Other health industries also could be asked to pay more as negotiators look to replace the $60 billion lost in the tax deal with labor unions.

“There’s nothing that’s certain ...until we put all the pieces together,” House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel said.

The talks appeared to be heading toward the Senate approach on cuts in Medicare, the health program for the elderly, and on including some of the elements of the Medicare Advisory Board included in the Senate bill and backed by Obama.

“That’s a major issue in discussion still,” Representative Chris Van Hollen said of the Medicare board, which is designed to implement payment changes with few chances for congressional interference.

“We’re working with the president and the Senate and we’re moving toward an outcome where we’ll be assured that we’ll get savings,” he told reporters.

Obama visited the Capitol on Thursday and told House Democrats he recognized the healthcare overhaul was unpopular, but attitudes would change once the final bill is passed.

In a private session with House Democrats, Obama also signaled he supported the House’s version of a national insurance exchange, rather than the Senate’s state exchanges, a Democratic House aide said.

Both the House and Senate have limited room to maneuver in the negotiations. A shift of three votes in the House could doom the bill, which passed by a 220 to 215 vote in November. In the Senate, the bill passed on Christmas Eve with exactly the 60 votes it needed to overcome unified Republican opposition, and a single defection could doom it.

If the Democrats lose the Massachusetts Senate race, it would take about 15 days to certify the results, state election officials say. That might give Congress time to pass the bill if it hurries.

Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Vicki Allen

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