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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Some Democrats still undecided on Obama plan President summons 16 to White House

WASHINGTON - Although Democratic leaders in Congress praised his remarks and made fresh pledges to approve a health care bill, President Obama in his speech Wednesday night did not immediately win over some moderate Democrats who have expressed reservations and who would be key to winning final passage.
Governor looks to ease insurance burden on small businesses. B1

Senator Ben Nelson, a Democrat from Nebraska, said it would take a few days for the president’s ideas to “percolate’’ as moderates studied them more closely and gauged constituent opinion. At home this weekend, Nelson said, he planned to “go down to Ace Hardware and see what they say when I’m checking out.’’

He said he remained concerned about raising money to pay for a health insurance expansion by taxing insurers on their most expensive plans. The move, he said, might raise premiums for everyone.

After his big speech before a joint session of Congress, Obama gave more evidence that he is assuming a more active role after months of allowing Congress to try to come up with its own compromise, summoning a group of 16 Senate Democrats yesterday to the White House for a late afternoon meeting. Most of them are crucial moderates; some have expressed concerns about the costs of expanding coverage and have been reluctant to create a government health plan as part of the package.

The lawmakers summoned to the White House left without addressing reporters. But in an interview later, Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who attended the meeting, called it a “good discussion’’ focused on lowering costs.

“Our efforts were on how do we get this done in a way that is going to address the rising cost of health care, help families struggling to pay their insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs, and how are we going to help businesses’’ pay for health care, she said.

Democratic leaders of a bipartisan team of Senate Finance Committee negotiators said the president’s speech had given new energy to their work, which has been dragging on for months. Yesterday the group, called the “Gang of Six,’’ appeared to be inching closer to a deal, a development that might have helped by chairman Max Baucus’s announcement Wednesday that he will begin drafting legislation next week, with our without Republicans.

Another move by Obama on Wednesday night - declaring strong support for a government-run plan to compete with private insurers, but signaling a willingness to compromise - appeared to soften some liberals. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat who has a large block of progressives who have insisted on a public plan, sounded more flexible than ever before on the issue yesterday.

But Richard Kirsch, director of Health Care for America Now!, a large coalition of liberal groups in favor of a strong public option, said the left would not give in.

“I think liberals are going to stick to their guns and say they want a real public option,’’ he said. “The base is pretty clear - a co-op is not a public option.’’

Questions remained among moderates, too. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a former Democrat turned independent, said he was pleased the president suggested the public insurance option was not the most important element of any plan. But he said he still had questions about how the entire plan would be financed.

Kent Conrad, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, a moderate from North Dakota, and one of the Gang of Six, said talks yesterday dealt in part with some of the more volatile side issues in the legislation that he called “very major elements of things to be concluded’’ - concerning abortion, illegal immigrants, and medical malpractice reform.

Conrad said the negotiators were trying to make sure that illegal immigrants could not take advantage of any new government benefits. And although the Finance Committee does not have jurisdiction over medical malpractice, he said, members were considering whether they could suggest changes that could help reduce the practice of “defensive medicine,’’ such as establishing special medical malpractice courts or encouraging arbitration. He said the president’s mention Wednesday night of that issue, a top concern for Republicans, was “very helpful’’ in legitimizing discussion about it. He said the committee members were also discussing Baucus’s proposal to expand Medicaid to all Americans under 133 percent of the federal poverty level and awaiting more information about how the costs would be shared with the states.

“This group honestly has been really committed to trying to find common sense, mainstream solutions to these issues. I think you can tell by the number of hours we spent, people are serious; this is not a frivolous effort,’’ Conrad said of the group’s discussions. “But I think the president’s speech helped. He made some very important offers last night.’’
© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

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