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US Democrats Begin Final Push for Health Care Reform

U.S. Democratic lawmakers are set to meet with President Barack Obama Tuesday as they begin their final push to deliver sweeping U.S. health care legislation.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer will meet with the president to discuss strategy before the final negotiations on the Senate and House versions of the reform begin.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and number-two Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin, will join the meeting by conference call.

Democrats are hoping to secure final passage of a health care bill before President Obama delivers the annual State of the Union address to Congress, expected by early February.

Democratic leaders could choose to bypass a formal conference between the House and Senate on the legislation.  The move would shut out Republican lawmakers trying to delay the final negotiations.

The House passed a health care reform bill in November, and the Senate passed its version of the bill in December.  Differences between the two must be addressed before they are merged into a single bill.  The House and Senate will then vote on the final legislation before it is sent to President Obama to sign.

The most controversial difference is that the House version includes a new government health insurance plan that would compete with private insurers.  The Senate bill has no such provision.  Democratic leaders in the Senate abandoned the idea when some in their own party threatened to vote against the bill if it contained the so-called "public option."

There also is a big difference in how the two bills would be financed.

The Senate legislation would be paid for by fees on insurance companies, drug makers and medical device makers, as well as an increase in the payroll tax that workers pay for Medicare - the government health insurance plan for the elderly.  The House version would impose a 5.4-percent surtax on people earning more than $500,000 a year, and it would levy a tax on the sale of medical devices.

The Senate bill would extend health care coverage to about 94 percent of legal U.S. residents under the age of 65, and the House bill would cover 97 percent.  That compares to about 83 percent now.

Senate Republicans say the health care bill will raise insurance costs for families and small businesses and take money from the government's medical program for the elderly.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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