White House Still Sees Health Reform By Year’s End Despite Delays

By Jackie Frank | July 24, 2009

Shrugging off delays in a divided Congress, President Barack Obama’s administration on Friday said a sweeping healthcare overhaul would still be approved by year’s end to control costs and expand coverage.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said the Senate’s failure to hold to an August deadline to pass an initial version of healthcare legislation would not derail Obama’s central domestic policy objective.

“I think we will have a bill by the end of the year for the president to sign on healthcare reform that controls costs, expands coverage and provides choice,” Emanuel told National Public Radio.

The reform package under construction in both chambers of the Democratic-controlled Congress has been hit by criticism of its more than $1 trillion price tag and its scope, with debates over how to pay for the program and rein in costs.

Obama has described healthcare reform as essential to longterm U.S. economic viability and had asked the Senate and House to pass first versions before leaving for the summer recess to help keep opposition from building.

To speed the measure in the House of Representatives, Democratic leaders said on Friday they may go ahead with a vote in the full House next week without waiting for a deal with fiscally conservative Democrats concerned about its high cost.

Negotiations with that group have not produced an agreement that could pass the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and its chairman, Representative Henry Waxman, said he would let the full House bypass his panel if it could not reach a deal. Two other committees have approved the bill.

Representative John Larson, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, said Democrats would discuss the legislation in depth on Monday and then decide whether to skip the committee vote.

“They have a lot of stuff that’s already done,” Larson said. “Whether they vote on that or not, that’s another thing.”

But Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said Thursday the Senate was only likely to debate its version of the legislation in September — throwing open the question of when and what kind of final legislation may emerge.

Obama has staked significant political capital on the passage of a healthcare bill this year before lawmakers turn their focus to 2010 midterm elections.

‘DETAILS MATTER’

Emanuel said the White House still believed things were broadly on track.

“The key thing is … we are now debating how to control costs,” Emanuel told NPR. “We are down to the final details. Those details matter. But we … I think are making progress.”

Speaking of ways to control costs, which has become a central sticking point on the plan, Emanuel said the White House is urging Congress to include a proposal for an outside commission on health care costs cutting.

“If you want to control costs, one of the things the president talked about is to have a group of health experts to ensure that, in fact, the changes that are necessary to the system so the system is more efficient, more cost effective, are done,” he said.

The final bills are expected to include some form of public insurance plan to compete with private insurers and help cover most of the 46 million Americans without insurance.

But Republicans have zeroed in on proposed tax hikes and heavy government involvement in healthcare to criticize the plan, while conservatives in Obama’s own Democratic Party have also balked at the plan’s size and expense.

Leaders of House fiscal conservatives met for nearly three hours with Emanuel and Nancy-Ann DeParle, Obama’s healthcare adviser, on Thursday but came to no agreement on the bill. Reid and Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus were to meet with Obama on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Donna Smith, writing by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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