- The Washington Times - Friday, January 15, 2010

President Obama on Thursday implored House Democrats to fight for the health care overhaul bill and dared Republicans to run against it in the midterm elections as White House officials closed in on deals over the last controversial issues holding up the legislation.

Mr. Obama, addressing the House’s Democratic caucus, told the lawmakers to overcome their anxiety and opposition to some elements of the measure to do the right thing.

“Now I know that some of the fights we’ve been going through have been tough. I know that some of you have gotten beaten up at home,” Mr. Obama said. “But just remember why each of us got into public service in the first place. We found something that was worth fighting for.”

The president spoke shortly after union leaders said they had reached a deal with the White House to scale back a tax on so-called “Cadillac” health care plans. House and Senate leaders continued White House meetings until late Thursday night to try to hammer out a complete package.

AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka said Democrats had agreed to increase the threshold at which insurance plans would be considered high-end and subject to a 40 percent tax - from $8,500 to $8,900 for singles and from $23,000 to $24,000 for families. The move is designed to appease labor unions angry that their middle-class members would be hit under the original Senate bill.

The fight had erupted into a major hurdle in merging the House and Senate bills. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said she had not seen the agreement but “I am very pleased if that is so.” It was not clear whether Senate negotiators agreed to the plan.

The House and Senate also have different policies on abortion and whether to establish one national or multiple insurance exchanges, among other issues. Democratic leaders say they hope to have final compromises in place and send specifics to Congress’ budget keeper by Saturday. The Congressional Budget Office then would complete a cost and impact analysis of the plan.

“We’re getting closer to agreement between the two houses so we can move forward,” said Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

Republicans have opposed the Democrats’ bill almost from the start and blasted the deal with labor leaders Thursday as a “backroom maneuver.”

Democrats “have resorted to buyoffs and sweetheart deals at the expense of other hardworking Americans,” said Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Republicans, confident that opposition to the plan chronicled in poll after poll will translate into midterm election victories and potentially pull them out of minority status, mocked the president and Democrats for keeping their wheeling and dealing out of the public eye.

“The definition of irony: Democratic leaders today emerged from a closed-door meeting to announce a backroom ‘deal’ on health care, then brag about the ‘transparent process,’ ” said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner, Ohio Republican.

But Mr. Obama said he’ll take to the road to fight for the bill - his chief legislative priority for much of his first year in office - and help transform public opinion that has turned on him.

“I’ll be out there waging a great campaign from one end of the country to the other, telling Americans, with insurance or without insurance, what they stand to gain,” he said. “I’m going to tell them that I am proud we are putting the future of America before the politics of the moment, the next generation before the next election.”

He addressed the fact that Republicans are likely to try to capitalize on the nation’s discontent.

“If Republicans want to campaign against what we’ve done by standing up for the status quo and for insurance companies over American families and businesses, that is a fight I want to have,” he told lawmakers.

Union leaders said they were not ready to endorse the reform bill but were encouraged by the changes.

“Our people were very, very pleased by it and ready to go and fight for it,” said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Under the plan, the tax would not kick in until 2018 for state and local government employees and some collective bargaining agreement plans, exclude vision and dental plans after 2015, and allow union insurance plans to enter the exchanges, according to union leaders.

The Senate’s bill included the tax with hopes from proponents that it would be a disincentive against purchasing expensive health care plans.

The new tax structure would remove about $60 billion in revenue from the bill, Mr. Trumka said. It’s unclear where the costs would be offset, but one idea circulating among lawmakers is a Medicare tax on capital gains from families who make more than $250,000 or individuals who make more than $200,000.

Mr. Hoyer told MSNBC on Thursday that the House probably would be working this weekend to try to sew up a final deal. Democratic leaders have said they hope to have a bill on the president’s desk by the time he gives his State of the Union address, which hasn’t been scheduled but is expected in early February.

The House has been in town all week but the Senate isn’t resuming its session until Tuesday. Top Senate Democrats have been in town and attending the negotiating sessions, according to aides.

Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Hoyer also said on Thursday that the merged bill would be posted online for 72 hours before the House votes, “for all members and the American people to review,” they said in a joint statement. “We will continue the transparent process this landmark legislation has had for months.”

c Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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