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Obama sets health bill deadline for week’s end

WASHINGTON – Moving forcefully on his top domestic priority, President Barack Obama told a powerful Senate chairman on Monday he wants health care legislation ready in the Finance Committee by week’s end, according to numerous Democratic officials.

These officials said Obama made his wishes known directly to Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., at a White House meeting attended by administration officials and senior Democratic lawmakers.

It was not immediately clear whether Obama expressed a preference for a bipartisan measure – which Baucus has been laboring over for months – or a bill tailored more to Democratic specifications.

Still, the virtual deadline underscored Obama’s determination to push initial legislation through both houses of Congress before lawmakers leave the Capitol in August for a vacation.

“Don’t bet against us. We are going to make this thing happen,” the president told reporters earlier in the day, fresh from an overseas trip that coincided with slippage in momentum for his top domestic priority.

Despite objections from conservative and moderate Democrats, prospects for House action along the president’s timetable are better than in the Senate.

There, majority Democrats are readying legislation, to be introduced as early as today, that would prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage or charging higher premiums on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions.

The measure would spend billions of dollars subsidizing lower income individuals and families who cannot afford coverage, in an attempt to cut dramatically into the ranks of the uninsured.

To comply with another presidential priority, it would rely on cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to begin slowing the rate of growth in health care spending overall.

The measure is expected to impose a fee equal to 8 percent of a worker’s salary on large companies that fail to offer insurance or do not subsidize it at a high enough rate.

Individuals also would have to pay a penalty if they refused to purchase affordable insurance.

Officials announced last week that the measure would include an income tax surcharge on the wealthy, estimated to raise more than $500 billion over the next decade.

Efforts at completing the measure have been slowed in recent days by criticism from moderate and conservative Democrats. Obama met with a delegation of critics on his first business day back at the White House after an overseas trip, and Rep. Henry Waxman of California, one of the committee chairmen involved in drafting the House bill, sat down with them in the evening.

Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., head of the Blue Dogs’ health care task force, said late in the day that some of the group’s concerns were being addressed, but not enough so they could support the House Democrats’ bill expected to be released today.

Fresh from his foreign trip, Obama lost no time signaling his determination to prevail.

“I just want to put everybody on notice, because there was a lot of chatter during the week that I was gone,” the president said. “Inaction is not an option.”

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