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Obama Ups Ante in Health Care Debate

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The push for health care reform continued Wednesday, with President Barack Obama making his biggest stand yet in favor of a public plan as battle lines continued to sharpen between Democrats and Republicans on both sides of Capitol Hill.

In a letter to Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) sent late Tuesday following a series of meetings on health care at the White House, Obama made clear he expects to see a reform bill on his desk this year and stepped up his demand that a government-run, public plan option be included in the legislation.

The president’s move to prioritize the public plan could sink any chance of achieving reform that garners bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Republican leaders have made opposing the public plan option a key talking point in distinguishing their brand of reform from Democrats’, with top GOP Senators suggesting that a bipartisan outcome is unlikely to materialize.

“There are two things, that, how they turn out, are going to be the factor” in determining whether the final bill will be bipartisan, said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on Finance who has been working closely with Baucus to fashion a centrist health care bill. “Anything to do with rationing,” and the public plan.

With large majorities in the House and Senate, Democrats do not necessarily need Republican votes to pass health care reform.

In Obama’s letter to Baucus and Kennedy, he — as explicitly as he has to date — outlined his policy priorities for reform. Although there are several items of concern among Democrats and Republicans, the public plan option is the most controversial.

“I strongly believe that Americans should have the choice of a public health insurance option operating along side private plans,” Obama wrote to Baucus and Kennedy in his Tuesday letter. “This will give them a better range of choices, make the health care market more competitive, and keep insurance companies honest.”

Many Democrats believe implementing the public plan option is necessary to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable coverage, regardless of where they live or what prior health conditions they have. Most Republicans regard the policy as a first step toward universal, single-payer coverage that will destroy the quality of care and result in a federal government bureaucracy that will delay and deny care.

Since Congress returned from Memorial Day recess, Republicans have elevated their attacks against the public plan option, while Democrats — who are generally supportive — have joined Obama in promoting it. Although Republicans have been the most vocal in their opposition to the public plan and their concern about the overall cost of reform, many moderate Democrats also are skittish.

In the House, the conservative Blue Dog Democrats sent a shot across the bow of House leaders Wednesday, warning they will not support a public plan option for health care except as a fallback that would be “triggered” if private insurance companies fail to meet benchmarks for cutting costs and covering the uninsured.

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