President Obama spent several hours with congressional leaders Wednesday in a marathon negotiating session aimed at resolving outstanding differences between the House and Senate Democrats over health-care legislation and pushing his top domestic priority through to final passage.
During a mid-afternoon break in the talks, which began at 10:30 a.m. and stretched into the early evening, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters that the two sides were making progress. An aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said the goal is to submit a compromise package to congressional budget analysts for a final cost estimate by early next week. The discussions are expected to resume Thursday.
Calculating the dollar amount is likely to take at least another week, however, and senior Democrats said a final bill is unlikely to hit Obama's desk before early February, a timetable that would complicate the president's goal of touting a health-care deal in his State of the Union speech, which is expected to take place in late January or early February.
Noting the delay, the measure's sagging support in public opinion polls and concern among House Democrats that they may be forced to swallow some unpopular provisions supported by the Senate, Republicans boasted Wednesday that they still have a good chance to derail the health-care legislation, which would spend about $900 billion over the next decade to extend insurance to as many as 36 million Americans.
"The bottom line is, I believe we can beat this bill," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told GOP lawmakers at a meeting Wednesday morning. "The American people are with us."
The House and Senate each approved health-care measures by razor-thin margins. The packages share a remarkably similar vision for reform. Both chambers' bills would provide insurance to people who lack access to affordable coverage by dramatically expanding Medicaid and creating a government-run marketplace in which people could shop for private coverage subsidized by the government.
Big differences on difficult issues remain, however, including questions about how generously to subsidize low- and middle-income people, and how to pay for the legislation. But Democratic lawmakers said the fact that Obama participated in talks with Reid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other key players proves their determination to craft a compromise that could come close to achieving their long-held goal of universal health coverage. Obama is also scheduled to address House Democrats on Thursday at the Capitol.
"I think this president's participation in the details is an indication of how critically important he thinks it is for the American people to do what he said he would do, and that is to be sure that every American has access to affordable quality health care," Hoyer told reporters. "That's not just rhetoric. He's walking the walk."
For Wednesday's session, Pelosi, Hoyer, Reid and other key Democrats gathered in the Cabinet Room just off the Oval Office -- no cellphones or BlackBerrys were allowed, a restriction that left aides on Capitol Hill starved for information. While Obama also spent time monitoring and coordinating the response to the crisis in Haiti, participants said he was in the room for hours, along with his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and other senior administration officials.
Participants and lawmakers briefed on the talks said the group went through the health-care package section by section. Given the enormous difficulty Senate Democrats had in mustering 60 votes to avert a Republican filibuster, House leaders are under intense pressure to adopt many of the Senate's provisions. House leaders have all but conceded defeat on the creation of a government-run insurance plan, a top priority of House liberals that Senate moderates roundly rejected. Meanwhile, Obama last week endorsed one of the Senate's most contentious revenue-raising provisions: a 40 percent excise tax on high-cost insurance policies that is deeply unpopular among labor unions and many House members.
A small group of labor leaders met separately with administration officials on Wednesday to try to find ways to lessen the impact of the tax on union members. Meanwhile, House leaders have signaled that they might be willing to accept the tax on high-cost insurance plans -- set by the Senate at $23,000 for family coverage -- if the threshold were raised to about $25,000. The lost revenue would be replaced by some version of a tax on the wealthy, which the House prefers.
In a joint statement Wednesday, Obama, Pelosi and Reid said: "Today we made significant progress in bridging the remaining gaps between the two health insurance reform bills. We're encouraged and energized, and we're resolved to deliver reform legislation that provides more stability and security for those with insurance, extends coverage to those who don't have coverage, and lowers costs for families, businesses, and governments."