A key Senate Democrat involved in bipartisan negotiations on health care announced plans on Wednesday to move ahead with a "markup" -- the process of finalizing a bill for full consideration by lawmakers.
"The time has come for action and we will act. We must move forward if we are going to get this bill done by the end of the year," said Max Baucus, who heads the Senate Finance Committee.
Baucus has spent months negotiating with Republicans and skeptical Democrats on the panel to gain support for a bipartisan version of reform legislation -- one of two measures to emerge in the Senate, along with three in the House of Representatives.
Baucus said he hopes for some Republican support and that he will be open to amendment suggestions, but none that would pose a threat to a bill that would go before the Finance Committee.
Although not the only controversial aspect of reform proposals put forward by Democrats and supported by the president, a proposed government-run insurance option -- as an alternative to plans offered to Americans by private companies -- has drawn the most attention.
Democrats and Republicans present sharply divergent views on the so-called "public option". Republicans assert that an expanded government role would threaten the current private system, separate from the federally-administered Medicare system for the elderly, and add to the government budget deficit.
House Republican leader John Boehner says more government involvement is not the answer. "We have a good system that works well for many people. Everybody understands that we have problems in the current system that can be addressed. But to replace the entire current system with a big, government-run plan is not what the American people want and is certainly not what I want," he said.
After a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, Representative John Larson acknowledged that lawmakers in that chamber are continuing to address concerns some members have about the cost of health care reform. "There were other members that put ideas on the table and so we will drill down further in our opportunity to make that we come up with the best bill that brings the Democratic caucus and has the votes to be taken to the floor of the House [of Representatives]," he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she believes it is essential that a government-sponsored public option be part of any bill, if it is to be passed by the House.
Such an option is not part of the plan that will move forward in the Senate Finance Committee. Senator Baucus told reporters on Wednesday that he believes a government option could not pass in the Senate.
Representative Jim Clyburn, who is responsible for generating Democratic votes in the House, has suggested that government-sponsored insurance could be implemented gradually in "pilot programs" across the country.
At a news conference, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and officials of groups representing African-Americans and other minorities criticized what they called "lies" circulated by opponents of health care reform -- including suggestions that it is socialism and would reduce care for the elderly.
Marc Morial, Chief Executive Officer of the National Urban League, says minorities make up a significant portion of the 40 million or more Americans without health insurance. "For the more than 40 million Americans -- half of whom are black and brown, and from communities of color -- access to health care would be provided by comprehensive health reform," he said.
"Thirteen percent of whites in this country do not have health care. Twenty-two percent of blacks, 36 percent of Latinos. The fact that almost twice as many blacks don't have health care as whites in part explains why black children are twice as likely to die before their first birthday as white kids. This issue could not be more serious," said Benjamin Todd Jealous, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Controversy over health care reform proposals has cost President Obama public approval points, reflected in the latest opinion polls.
An Associated Press-GfK [Research] survey before the president's address to Congress showed public disapproval of the way the president has handled the health care reform issue has increased to 52 percent.