updated 6/14/2009 4:53:50 PM ET 2009-06-14T20:53:50

Lawmakers and administration officials on Sunday distanced themselves from the idea of taxing health benefits to help pay President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and bickered over whether government insurance would strengthen the market.

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The debate over a government insurance plan has broken mainly along party lines. But Democrats and Republicans appearing on Sunday's TV news programs either rejected or offered no support for raising revenues on some people through a tax on health benefits. Obama has not supported the idea, but has said it should be considered along with other proposals.

Vice President Joe Biden said that administration doesn't want to tax health care benefits even though the proposal should be on the table. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., called taxing health benefits a "bad idea" as well as unnecessary.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to consider a tax on workers whose family health coverage costs $15,000 a year or more in premiums paid by employer and employee combined.

Obama is pressing for an overhaul that includes a government health insurance option, arguing that it would increase competition and drive down costs. Republican lawmakers have called the proposal a "nonstarter."

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said he doubts that there are enough votes in the Senate to support a government insurance option. He is proposing a compromise plan that would set up membership-based cooperatives using government help but not run by the government.

"It's far preferable to the government-run plan that has been discussed by the administration," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "We need to better understand how it would work. But it's certainly better than a Washington-run plan."

Republicans are reluctant to use the government to drastically change the health care system. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said lawmakers should focus on making the existing health care system work better and predicted that Obama's plan would result in massive government controls.

"We know that if the government gets in this business, pretty soon nobody else will be in the business," McConnell said.

Bills in the House and Senate would require people to purchase health insurance if they could afford it, a proposal that Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said is more likely to draw bipartisan congressional support than mandating coverage through employers.

Biden appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" while Dodd and Grassley were on "Fox News Sunday." McConnell appeared on CBS' "Face the Nation" and Conrad and Collins on CNN's "State of the Union."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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