Obama's health plan: Battle lines become clearer

Key players in the coming congressional debate spoke Sunday. Their comments are a road map for the week ahead.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
A panel of experts testify about healthcare reform at a roundtable-style hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in Washington Thursday.

Vehicle owners must buy car insurance. Similarly, the US government could require individuals to buy health insurance.

A top Republican Senator said Sunday that he believes such an individual healthcare mandate could pass Congress. But a requirement that employers provide health coverage likely would not.

The comments come as Democratic leaders in Congress and administration officials intensify efforts to pass President Obama's healthcare reform plan. Healthcare is likely to be a big topic in Washington this week.

Several key players laid out their positions Sunday, providing an indication of how the coming debate might take shape, and where compromises might – and might not – be struck.

"I believe there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates," said Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa in an interview on Fox News Sunday.

There is less consensus, however, about whether legislation that emerges from Congress should tax employer-provided health benefits.

Some analysts believe that is a logical way to help pay for an ambitious expansion in national coverage. Others point out that such a move would also constitute a tax hike on the middle class – something President Obama has pledged to avoid.

The administration, for its part, continues to oppose such a move.

"We do not believe you should be taxing the benefits people receive through their employers now," said Vice President Joe Biden on Meet the Press.

The administration envisions a government-run health insurance program that would compete with private firms, Vice President Biden said. But it could be flexible as to how such a government program is structured, he added.

"We have made it clear there should be a public plan ... but the question is, what is the public plan?" he said.

Such a government insurance program is necessary because, despite the plethora of choices in many areas, some states do not have a lot of competition in health insurance, administration officials say.

In Kansas, for instance, the state felt compelled to create a public plan to compete with a dominent insurer, said Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in an interview on CNN.

"The president feels that having a public option side by side, same playing field, same rules, will give Americans choice and will help lower costs for everybody," said Secretary Sebelius, who was governor of Kansas from 2003 to 2009.

But also on CNN, Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said that in his opinion the Senate would not pass Obama's government health program option.

Senator Conrad supports an alternative in which the government would help establish membership-based health insurance cooperatives.

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