WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama urged lawmakers Wednesday to work through partisan differences that are threatening health care legislation just as it starts moving through Congress.
Obama summoned Democratic and Republican senators to a meeting at the White House. Afterward, the committee leaders said Obama was willing to listen to all sides but insisted that Congress must pass a bill this year that reins in costs and helps provide coverage to nearly 50 million uninsured people.
"The one thing he wouldn't accept was not getting the job done," said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. "He was flexible on anything but the final conclusion. He wants the job done."
Dodd is filling in for the ailing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which starts working on a 651-page bill next week.
A senior Republican who recently criticized Obama also sounded positive. "The president, I thought, was very flexible except on one thing, and that was getting it done," said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "When the president is flexible on controversial things ... I think that that's good news."
Grassley is the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, which is also preparing to consider legislation.
Senators of both parties agree on many big issues, including getting all Americans covered and prohibiting insurance industry practices that deny coverage to people with health problems. But the are major disagreements over financing, requiring employers to offer coverage and whether the government should sponsor a health care plan to compete with private insurers.
Video: Sen. Gregg on lowering health care costs Trying to bridge the gap on the issue of government-sponsored insurance, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is floating a proposal that would create nonprofit cooperatives in each state.
Lawmakers at both ends of the Capitol are accelerating their drive to enact health care legislation, with House Democratic leaders also outlining a proposal this week.
At their core, the draft bill released by Senate health committee Democrats and an outline circulated by House Democrats were nearly identical.
The legislation would revamp the way health insurance works. Insurance companies would face a slew of new government rules, dealing with everything from guaranteed coverage for people with health problems to possible limitations on profits. Taxpayers, employers and individuals would share in the cost of expanding coverage.
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Individuals would be able to purchase insurance through a new federally regulated national exchange, and private companies would be barred from denying coverage or charging higher premiums because of pre-existing conditions. Those who are satisfied with their current coverage could keep it.
Video: Obama gets set to push health reform
But Democrats are not saying yet how they plan to cover the costs.
To pay for the health care overhaul, Congress is seriously considering a first-ever tax on some employer-provided medical benefits. But Obama campaigned against that last year, and its inclusion would require him to reverse course. Obama says health care legislation must be paid for, but his own list of tax increases and spending cuts doesn't cover the full cost.
Separately, the White House announced that Obama will speak to the American Medical Association in Chicago on Monday to push his health care overhaul.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama will describe why past efforts to change health care systems failed and warn about what happens if the overhaul doesn't take place this year.
Obama is taking a more forceful approach in the health care debate. He heads to Green Bay, Wis., on Thursday to talk with voters about his plan.
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