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House Democrats Pitch Health Care Plan

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

On Capitol Hill, the House today officially joined the health care overhaul effort. Leaders unveiled a, quote, "discussion draft of a bill." They say it would lead to 95 percent of Americans getting health insurance over the next decade.

But as NPR's Julie Rovner reports, the bill is as notable for who's behind it as what's in it.

JULIE ROVNER: There were smiles all around as the chairs of the three major committees that oversee health issues presented a single bill - the product of six months of intense negotiations.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller said the issue is too important to let turf battles prevail.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California; Chairman, House Education and Labor Committee): When the voters elected Barack Obama president, they did not only send a message to the White House that the White House must change, they sent an equally strong message to the Congress, that we must work together for the common good of our nation.

ROVNER: Among those standing shoulder-to-shoulder were Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and John Dingell, the man Waxman ousted as chairman six months ago. House Democrats have vowed to name their bill after Dingell, now the House's longest serving member.

Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan): I've worked 50 years on health care reform, and the release of this discussion draft is a first step towards getting a bill passed this year.

ROVNER: When he was chairman during the last effort to fix health care, however, Dingell couldn't get a bill through his committee. Waxman, his successor, vowed that won't be the case this time.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California; Chairman, House Energy and Commerce Committee): We're going to keep on the schedule that the president set out for us. We are going to be proceeding to figure out a final proposal to present to the House of Representatives by the end of July.

ROVNER: One thing the House Democrats seem united on is the idea of giving people the chance to enroll in a health insurance plan sponsored by the government.

Republicans are united in opposition. They say it will lead to a government takeover of health care. To pacify moderates in their party, Democrats say the public plan won't get government subsidies, but they want to be sure people have the choice, said Waxman.

Rep. WAXMAN: And it will be for a lot of people who want to make sure that they can rely on it where they feel uncomfortable with the insurance companies.

ROVNER: The House bill so far doesn't have a price tag, and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said that unlike in the Senate, leaders aren't imposing any set limits.

Representative STENY HOYER (Democrat, Maryland; Majority Leader, House of Representatives): But we will have a set limit in this respect, whatever we do will be paid for. The president's made that very clear, the speaker and I have made it very clear, the committee chairs understand that.

ROVNER: The optimism in the House was a stark contrast to activity over on the Senate side of the Capitol, where the health care debate has gotten a bit bumpy.

The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions panel is on the third day of what could be a 10 day drafting session.

Here's acting Chairman Chris Dodd.

Senator Chris Dodd (Democrat, Connecticut; Acting Chairman, Health Education and Labor and Pensions Committee): There's 171 amendments pending in the prevention section.

ROVNER: And that's the part of the bill that's supposed to be noncontroversial. Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee has gone back to the drawing board in an effort to bring its bill in at a price tag of under $1 trillion.

So what to make of all this? They're still a long way to go in the health care debate and it's hard to judge by a single week. But this much is clear: remaking a system that currently spends $2.2 trillion a year, more than $7,400 per person, is not going to be easy.

Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Julie Rovner