WASHINGTON (AP) - A key senator has circulated a new proposal that could breathe new life into President Barack Obama's effort to bring affordable health care to all Americans.
Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who is Senate Finance Committee chairman, is part of a six-member bipartisan group trying to craft a bill satisfactory to both parties. The group is set to meet Tuesday as Congress returns from its August recess and the president prepares for a prime-time speech Wednesday to push his top domestic priority.
The United States is the only developed nation that does not have a comprehensive national health care plan for all its citizens. About 50 million of America's 300 million people are without health insurance, and Obama campaigned on a promise of offering affordable health care to all Americans. But opposition has grown because of conservative attacks and liberal inability to counter them effectively.
The Finance Committee is the last best hope for a bipartisan bill. Four of five congressional committees have produced partisan proposals. Baucus has said he would move forward on his own if there's no agreement by Sept. 15.
It's unclear whether Baucus' proposal to add a fee on the health care industry to help cover the uninsured - designed to create competition in the insurance market - would win support of two key Republicans in the group: Chuck Grassley and Mike Enzi. The Baucus proposal reflected many of their priorities, chief among them the decision not to include a government-run plan to compete with private insurers.
A spokesman for Enzi said the senator remains actively involved in the negotiations and is reviewing the Baucus proposal to make sure it keeps a handle on costs.
Democratic sources close to the negotiations, who were not authorized to be quoted by name, disclosed the fee and other details of the Baucus proposal. One source said the proposal included suggestions from all six members.
The fee is only a piece of a Baucus plan that would establish a new way to purchase coverage for Americans who have trouble getting and keeping health insurance. Americans could keep their own doctors.
Obama said in a Labor Day speech in Cincinnati that a health insurance system should work as well for all Americans as it does for the insurance industry.
"They should be free to make a profit. But they also have to be fair. They also have to be accountable," the president said. "That's what we're talking about - security and stability for folks who have health insurance, help for those who don't, coverage they need at a price they can afford, finally bringing costs under control - that's the reform that's needed."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, accompanying Obama on a trip to Ohio on Monday, told reporters the administration would be pleased if the Finance Committee throughout the course of the next few days would "pull together the strands of many different pieces of legislation to improve health care for all Americans."
Under the Baucus plan, health insurance exchanges, with information on different plans and prices, would allow small groups and individuals to buy policies at lower rates. Medicaid, which is government-sponsored health insurance for the poor, would be expanded to cover more low-income people. Nonprofit cooperatives would be established as an alternative to for-profit insurance companies, giving consumers more choices. Tax credits would allow low-and-middle income Americans to buy private coverage.
The package would cost under $900 billion over 10 years.
One Democratic source said the proposal was not a final product. Finance Committee members were encouraged to suggest modifications, although Baucus advised senators that any proposals that would increase costs should include provisions to offset any increase.
Obama is getting no shortage of advice on what to say in his health care speech to Congress, and much of it conflicts.
Liberals want him to issue a call to action - clear and bold. Conservatives hope he'll back away from his push for sweeping changes this year and break health care legislation into smaller pieces.
Everyone is hungry for specifics about Obama's stand on major elements of the package.