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Congress has been arguing over health care for decades, and now they have set a deadline. It's an ambitious schedule to try to produce a health care overhaul bill before the recess that lawmakers take for the Fourth of July. That's a little more than a month from now. NPR's Julie Rovner has this update on the progress so far.
JULIE ROVNER: Members of the Senate Finance Committee are taking the task of writing a health care overhaul seriously - very seriously. In just the past month, noted Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, they've spent more than 30 hours questioning health care experts, staff and each other over various policy details.
Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): Which is very appropriate for something where we're redirecting 16 percent of the gross national product.
ROVNER: The committee's ever-upbeat chairman, Montana Democrat Max Baucus, insists that the panel is still well positioned to meet the ambitious schedule he and Grassley laid out weeks ago.
Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana; Chairman, Senate Finance Committee): We planned some time ago that our markup would be mid-June. It's going to mid-June. We've not let anything slip.
ROVNER: But while senators have insisted that no decisions have been made, some of the areas of disagreement are becoming clearer. A big one is whether people will be allowed to choose between private insurance coverage and some sort of government-funded plan like Medicare. Democrats say a public plan is needed to keep private insurers honest. But Republicans like Orrin Hatch of Utah remain dead set against the so-called public option.
Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): I'm not super enthusiastic about the insurance industry, either. But I know one thing: The private sector industry works a lot better than the government sector industry. And that has been proven true over 200 years in this country.
ROVNER: Another big sticking point is how to pay for what's likely to big a price tag, something in the neighborhood of one-and-a-half trillion dollars over the next 10 years. One possibility is raising taxes on things that aren't good for you. Alcohol and drinks sweetened with sugar have both been suggested. Such taxes, say health experts, would have the double impact of raising revenue and lowering consumption. But those kinds of taxes are particularly unpopular, says Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden.
Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): I think that when you go to taxing Joe Sixpack on his beer and Joe Jr. on his soda pop, what Americans are going to say is we're already spending $2.5 trillion this year on health care. Can't you find some savings out of that enormous sum before you start hitting us with more of these taxes?
ROVNER: Meanwhile, despite Chairman Baucus's insistence that everything is on the table, he conceded in a meeting with reporters yesterday that one thing is not: a single-payer plan that would replace all private health insurance with government-financed coverage.
Sen. BAUCUS: It's not on the table. It's the only thing that's not, because it cannot pass. It just cannot pass. And we can't squander this opportunity. We can't waste capital on something that's just impossible.
ROVNER: Baucus insisted that single-payer backers should be satisfied with what he is trying to pass.
Sen. BAUCUS: You know, everybody's going to be - have health insurance. That's not a bad result. And they'll have quality health insurance. That's not a bad result.
ROVNER: But that result's still a long ways off. Here's what Baucus conceded Wednesday after members spent hours combing through financing options.
Sen. BAUCUS: The thought is that when we come back after the recess, we're having, boy, a lot more meetings.
ROVNER: Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.
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