Sat, Mar 13, 2010 - Page 7 News List

US Democrats move closer to healthcare deal

PRIORITYDemocrats are near an agreement on changes as Speaker Nancy Pelosi works ‘member-to-member’ to round up votes, but Congress is resisting deadlines

REUTERS , WASHINGTON

US Congressional Democrats drew closer on Thursday to agreement on a broad healthcare overhaul that could clear the way for a final vote in the next few weeks, but vowed not to be bound by White House deadlines.

US Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said there are still issues to work out in the reform package, and US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she was addressing the concerns “member-by-member.”

Democrats said they were close to hammering out the final changes on healthcare issues like taxes and consumer affordability that could break months of legislative gridlock on US President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

“We have a pretty good idea of where we are going on it,” Pelosi told reporters after Nancy-Ann DeParle, director of the White House Office of Health Reform, briefed members on the changes sought by Obama.

“We have to, member-by-­member, address the concerns that they raise,” Pelosi said.

Obama has pushed hard for a quick final vote on the healthcare overhaul, which has ignited a long-running political brawl with Republican opponents and consumed the US Congress for the last nine months.

DECISIONS

For the third consecutive night, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel met with congressional leaders at the US Capitol and told reporters afterward there were “a lot of decisions made.” He did not elaborate.

Obama met at the White House with members of the black and Hispanic congressional caucuses to keep up his lobbying effort and will hit the road again next week to sell his plan.

But congressional leaders, who have repeatedly missed deadlines for finishing the overhaul, resisted the latest White House target of finishing work before Obama leaves on an overseas trip on March 18.

Democrats still hope to approve the legislation to expand coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans and regulate insurance industry practices before leaving for a two-week Easter recess on March 26.

“We’re not going to set any arbitrary deadlines,” Reid said after meeting with Senate Democrats. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acknowledged it might take Congress a few extra days to finish the bill.

Democrats are awaiting a final cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office on the changes.

They hope to keep the total cost at about US$950 billion over 10 years — up from the Senate bill’s US$875 billion price tag — and have the bill reduce the deficit by about US$100 billion over the same period.

CHALLENGE

Once the bill and cost estimates are complete, Pelosi said she would give House members one week to study the proposal.

“But it is not something that we want to drag out,” she said.

Pelosi faces a huge challenge in lining up 216 votes for final passage among Democrats unhappy with key provisions — particularly language on the ban on federal funding for abortion — and nervous about November’s elections in which Republicans could challenge their control of Congress.

Under a two-step process, House Democrats plan to approve the Senate’s version of the bill and make the changes sought by Obama and House Democrats through a separate measure.

That second bill would be passed under budget reconciliation rules requiring only a simple majority in the 100-member Senate, bypassing the need for 60 votes to overcome Republican procedural hurdles.

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