- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009

Democrats on Thursday laid out an ambitious schedule for extending health care coverage to all Americans that would have the House and Senate pass separate bills by the end of summer, and deliver a final version to President Obama in time to meet his end-of-year deadline.

Mr. Obama set the year-end goal at a White House summit Thursday attended by lawmakers, health care providers, insurers and other stakeholders in the process.

“The productive, energetic discussion at today’s White House summit on health care reform set just the right tone for the national conversation on fixing our broken health care system,” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, who will have considerable influence over drafting health care legislation.

Mr. Baucus and the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, said they aim to reach an agreement within their panel in June, with the goal of having the bill to the Senate floor for debate and passage by July.

While the Senate is expected to take the lead in writing the legislation, a major role also will go to Rep. Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat and House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said he hopes to have a House version finished before Congress recesses in early August.

That would leave the fall for negotiations between the two chambers on a final compromise bill.

Mr. Obama said he has “some pretty strong ideas” about what the plan should look like, and said the White House will provide “some guideposts and guidelines about what we think we can afford to do, how we think it’s best to do it.”

Both Democrats and Republicans urged the Obama administration not to bypass Congress in its quest to deliver on one of the president’s most ambitious and high-stakes promises to the electorate. The Clinton administration wrote a detailed bill in secret in 1993 and then presented it to Congress - a reason often cited for their proposal’s failure.

Donna Shalala, President Clinton’s secretary of health and human services, told National Economic Council Director Lawrence H. Summers during one of the summit’s small group discussions: “Don’t write a bill at the White House.”

In another “breakout session,” Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican, looked at Zeke Emanuel, a senior White House health care policy adviser, and said, “I hope the bill isn’t already written.”

“I can assure you it’s not,” said Mr. Emanuel, who is the elder brother of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Mr. Obama began the four-hour summit - which was almost identical in form to last week’s meeting on fiscal responsibility - by making clear that rising health care costs, not unfunded entitlements or exploding levels of government spending, is his biggest economic concern.

“By a wide margin, the biggest threat to our nation’s balance sheet is the skyrocketing cost of health care,” he said.

Although he repeated the familiar line that health care for all is a “moral imperative,” he cautioned “liberal bleeding hearts” that “if we don’t address costs, I don’t care how heartfelt our efforts are, we will not get this done.”

“We will run out of money,” he said.

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