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Health Reform Debate Rages in US Congress

The debate over plans to reform America's health care system is raging in the U.S. Congress, as majority Democrats and President Barack Obama defend their proposal for a sweeping overhaul, and Republicans sharpen their criticism.

President Obama is fighting hard for his top domestic priority, an overhaul of the current health care system that would cost at least $1 trillion, a priority he asserts that can be achieved without adding to the federal budget deficit.

Before a meeting on Tuesday with Democrats on the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, one of five House and Senate panels preparing legislation, the president said again that Congress needs to put politics aside and get the job done.

"Time and again, we have heard excuses to delay and defeat reform. Time and again, the American people have suffered because people in Washington played the politics of the moment instead of putting the interests of the American people first," he said.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman, Democrat Henry Waxman ordered a pause in his panel's drafting of the measure as Democrats work to overcome differences within their party.

Legislation that the president and his fellow Democrats want to pass by the end of the year would create a government health insurance option to compete with private insurers, require all individuals to have health insurance and mandate employers to provide it.

Insurance companies would no longer be allowed to deny health coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions - a key point of weakness in and public anger with the current system.

Republicans oppose a proposed surtax on high wage earnings to pay for the new system, and assert that plan amounts to a government takeover of health care that would be far more expensive than Democrats and the president project.

Republicans also link potential costs with what they say is the failure so far of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act - the $787 billion stimulus plan approved by Congress to speed up economic recovery, an assertion the president and Democrats reject.

Representative Candace Miller was among a succession of Republicans conducting the equivalent of a filibuster Tuesday in the House, assailing the health care proposal and the president's handling of the economy. "$787 billion added to our national debt and an annual deficit approaching $2 trillion. Now we are being told that we need to pass health care reform immediately, because we are in a crisis," she said.

"Let me tell you what the facts are in our country - 43 to 50 million people in our country are without health care. They get their health care from the emergency room. And do you know who pays for that? Those of us who have insurance," said Texas Democrat Gene Green, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

In closed door negotiations, House Democrats are trying to overcome objections from fiscally-conservative Democrats who are not satisfied with cost reductions in the emerging measure.

Democrats also staged a news conference at which physicians and nurses, as well as Democratic lawmakers who are doctors, spoke in support of the health care reform effort.

Mohammad Akhter, Executive Director of the National Medical Association, said reform is needed to deal with an explosion of chronic disease in the United States, adding that failure to pass a bill now would mean more expense for the country later.

"People talk about the cost today. If you are going to wait, it is going to be unbearable. It is going to be much, much more expensive to deal with this issue in the future, so [the best] timing is now," he said.

Differences on health care were also heard in the Senate by Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Saying that President Obama is "calling the plays" as negotiations continue, Majority Leader Harry Reid asserted that Republicans want only the status quo.

"Republicans are not interested in working with Democrats to fix this problem. That is pretty clear. They simply want to maintain the status quo and keeping the insurance companies in charge of health care delivery," he said.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell repeated his party's warning about rushing a complicated and expensive health care bill through Congress. "We saw, with the [economic] stimulus the effort to rush and spend, what can happen if you jam major legislation before people have an opportunity to understand what is in it," he said.

House Democrats say they're still working to finalize a measure and if possible bring it to the House floor for a vote before lawmakers leave town for their August break.

But with conservative Democrats still voicing concerns, it is possible that the president might be forced to accept a delay until September.

Public Opinion polls show that a majority of Americans favor health care reform, but several recent surveys also show a decline in approval for the way President Obama is handling the issue.