Obama Tells Senators He Wants Health Care Reform Bill by October

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At a meeting with Democratic senators Tuesday, President Obama called on lawmakers to send him a comprehensive health reform bill by October, the New York Times reports (Pear/Stolberg, New York Times, 6/3).

According to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Obama "wants the bill through the Senate and the House before the August recess, so we can conference and have it done in September and signed in October." She added, "He said we needed to be unflinching and unflagging" (Armstrong, CQ Today, 6/2).

Obama said, "If we don't get control over costs, then it is going to be very difficult for us to expand coverage," adding, "These two things have to go hand in hand" (Jansen, CQ Today, 6/2). He said, "This window between now and the August recess, I think, is going to be the make-or-break period," adding, "This is the time where we've got to get this running" (Smith, Reuters, 6/2).

Public Plan

Obama also affirmed his support for a public health insurance option.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) reported that the "sentiment in the room, with the president and the rest of us, was that a public plan option will keep the insurance industry honest, will give people more choices in their health care and can save significant amounts of money" (New York Times, 6/3).

Many Democratic lawmakers consider a public health insurance option key to expanding coverage and controlling health care spending. However, Republicans strongly oppose such an option and see it as a deal-breaker (Jansen, CQ Today, 6/2).

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee is expected to include a public health insurance option in its health reform bill but it is uncertain whether the Senate Finance Committee, which seeks bipartisan legislation, will do the same (Wangsness, Boston Globe, 6/3).

Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chair Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said, "Hopefully you can get reform that is bipartisan," adding, "Our first hope would be to get it bipartisan, and we'll see what happens" (Jansen, CQ Today, 6/2).

Employer-Sponsored Health Care Benefits

Following the meeting, Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Obama indicated that he "might consider" changing the current tax exemption for employer-sponsored health insurance as a way to finance reform (Connolly, Washington Post, 6/3).

Baucus, who supports re-evaluating the exemption, added that the president indicated "all options are on the table" (Koffler, Roll Call, 6/2).

During the presidential campaign, Obama strongly criticized Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain's (Ariz.) proposal to tax employer-sponsored health benefits (Haberkorn, Washington Times, 6/3).

White House spokesperson Reid Cherlin said, "The president made it clear during the campaign that he has serious concerns about taxing health care benefits, and he has introduced his own revenue proposal, which he reiterated in today's meeting" (Washington Post, 6/3).

White House Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag added, "I think we have been clear that it was not in the president's plan, it is not in our budget. You heard today from Sen. Baucus that he and others have been putting ... that idea forward and I think we need to stay where we are," adding, "We are saying that we want the legislative process to play out and that's all we have to say on that" (Young, The Hill, 6/2).

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report on Tuesday saying, "Congress is unlikely to be able to finance health reform legislation that includes universal coverage unless it limits the exclusion of employers' health insurance payments from workers' income and payroll taxes" (New York Times, 6/3).

Individual Mandate

The final Senate health reform bill is likely to include a mandate requiring all U.S. residents to purchase health insurance, CongressDaily reports.

Following indications that the Senate Finance Committee will include such a requirement in its legislation, HELP Committee member Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) on Tuesday told Senate Democrats that the committee will include a mandate in its bill.

On Tuesday, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also told the House Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies that although Obama did not include a mandate as part of his health plan during the presidential campaign, he is "open to engaging in that conversation with Congress" (Edney/Hunt, CongressDaily, 6/3).

Prospects for Consolidation

As the Finance and HELP committees begin marking up their bills in the coming weeks, both are pledging to work together to merge their legislation before sending it to the Senate floor for debate (Young/Youngman, The Hill, 6/2).

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), HELP Committee Chair Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) surrogate while he receives treatment for brain cancer, said, "We're determined to work together to produce one bill" (Armstrong, CQ Today, 6/2).

Baucus said, "We agree that our bills should be fairly, if not very, closely aligned, and we're going to reach agreement and have one bill before we go forward," adding that the bill inevitably must have bipartisan support in order to be successful (Boston Globe, 6/3).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) expressed confidence, saying, "There seems to be real unity between the two committees. ... I think we can merge them" (The Hill, 6/2).

Broadcast Coverage

American Public Media's "Marketplace Morning Report" on Wednesday reported on Obama's meeting with Senate Democrats. The segment included comments about the industry's cost savings pledge by Robert Zirkelbach, a spokesperson for America's Health Insurance Plans, and Senate Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) (Henn, "Marketplace Morning Report," American Public Media, 6/3).

On Tuesday, the show included a segment about the White House Council of Economic Advisers' report on spending growth cuts (Keith, "Marketplace Morning Report," American Public Media, 6/2).

In addition, Tuesday's show included a segment on lobbying efforts by health care advocates, with comments from Richard Kirsch of Health Care for America Now (Karson, "Marketplace Morning Report," American Public Media, 6/2).

The show also included an interview with Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital and the author of a recent article on rising health care costs in The New Yorker (Ryssdal, "Marketplace," American Public Media, 6/2).

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