WASHINGTON - Democrats at both ends of the Capitol accelerated their drive to enact health-care legislation yesterday, outlining proposals to extend coverage to uninsured millions but omitting most details on plans for raising more than $1 trillion needed to cover costs.
"We are going to be deficit-neutral - even - over five or 10 years," White House budget director Peter Orszag said, and President Obama told Democrats he would soon outline as much as $300 billion in additional savings from Medicare and Medicaid.
A first-ever tax on employer-provided health benefits also figures prominently among options under consideration in Congress.
Given the uncertainty as well as the political sensitivity over raising taxes or cutting Medicare, Senate Republicans prodded Democrats to fill in the blanks before the scheduled beginning of committee work next week.
At their core, a partial draft bill released by Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and an outline circulated by senior House Democrats were largely identical.
Individuals would be able to purchase insurance through a new federally regulated "national exchange," and private companies would be barred from denying coverage or charging higher premiums because of pre-existing conditions.
Both bills would require individuals to purchase insurance if they could afford it. Waivers would be available in hardship cases.
The emerging House plan would give individuals the option of buying insurance provided by the government.
Democrats on the Senate committee embraced a similar provision last week but omitted it from the draft released yesterday in what Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D., Conn.) said was a gesture to Republicans who oppose it.
Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the health committee, said Democrats did so "because they know we're not going to like what they've written and they don't want us to have any time to comment."
Senate Republicans urged Democrats not to move ahead without detailed cost information. Democrats made clear they intended to move ahead on their own timetable, one that calls for passage of legislation in the House and Senate by early August.
"This is the year we have to do it," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D., Calif.).
Members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus warned Democratic leaders that any overhaul that ignored health gaps between whites and minorities would face stiff opposition.
No one is more identified with the health-care issue than Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.). In a poignant announcement, Dodd said Kennedy, diagnosed with a brain tumor, would be unable to attend the working sessions of the health committee he chairs beginning next week.