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AP sources: Obama wants Senate health bill quickly

DAVID ESPO,Associated Press Writers
ERICA WERNER,Associated Press Writers

WASHINGTON (AP) ó House Democrats are moving ahead with sweeping health care legislation as President Barack Obama prods a Senate committee chairman to take faster action on a companion measure.

Moving forcefully on his top domestic priority, Obama told Sen. Max Baucus he wants legislation ready by week’s end in the Finance Committee that Baucus chairs, according to numerous Democratic officials.

These officials said Obama made his wishes known directly to Baucus, D-Mont., at a White House meeting Monday attended by administration officials and senior Democratic lawmakers.

The virtual deadline underscored Obama’s determination to push legislation through both houses of Congress before lawmakers go home for their August summer break.

“Don’t bet against us. We are going to make this thing happen,” the president told reporters earlier Monday, fresh from an overseas trip during which the momentum behind his health care agenda slipped.

The officials who described the private meeting did so on condition of anonymity, saying they were not authorized to discuss private meetings.

Scott Mulhauser, a spokesman for Baucus, said the senior Democrat has stressed that his committee will be ready when it has completed a proposal “that can ensure quality, affordable care for every American, lower costs ó and pass the Senate.”

Despite objections from conservative and moderate Democrats in the House, prospects for quick action are better there than in the Senate.

Majority House Democrats expect to introduce legislation Tuesday that would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage or charging higher premiums on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions.

The measure would spend billions of dollars subsidizing lower-income individuals and families who cannot afford coverage in an attempt to cut dramatically into the ranks of the uninsured.

Its total price tag remains unknown, but to comply with another presidential priority, it would rely on cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to begin slowing the rate of growth in health care spending overall.

The measure is expected to impose a fee on large companies that fail to offer insurance, and individuals also would have to pay a penalty if they refused to purchase affordable insurance.

A new income tax on the wealthy, estimated to raise more than $500 billion over the next decade, would help pay for the bill.

Efforts at completing the measure have been slowed in recent days by criticism from a group of moderate and conservative Democrats known as the Blue Dog Coalition. Obama met with a Blue Dog delegation on Monday evening, and Rep. Henry Waxman of California, one of the committee chairmen involved in drafting the House bill, sat down with them separately.

Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., head of the Blue Dogs’ health care task force, said later that some of the group’s concerns were being addressed ó but not enough so they could support the House measure without further improvements.

Ross noted that more than a half-dozen members of the group have seats on the committee that Waxman chairs, enough to hold up passage.

He said that in one concession to the Blue Dogs, Democratic leaders have indicated that they’re increasing the size of the exemption for small businesses from a requirement for employers to provide health care to their employees. The exemption is expected to increase from businesses with payrolls of $100,000 to those with payrolls of $250,000, Ross said, which he characterized as “probably not enough.”

The group still has concerns about Medicare payments to doctors and other health care providers, rural health and other issues.

In the Finance Committee some highly controversial issues remain unresolved, including how to pay for the bill and a Democratic demand for the government to sell insurance in competition with private industry, a proposal Republicans oppose strongly. Unlike the other congressional committees working on health care, Finance members have been laboring to produce a bipartisan bill.

A second Senate committee, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, was pushing to complete work Tuesday on a partisan bill that would create a government-run health plan to compete with private insurers and require employers to provide coverage ó but probably could attract little or no Republican support.

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