Conservative Democrats lift Obama's healthcare hopes

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The Independent US

Prospects of an agreement in the US Congress on a sweeping overhaul of America's bloated healthcare system brightened a little yesterday after a group of conservative Democrats in the House of Representatives announced they had accepted a compromise bill allowing it to move forward.

The news, revealed by Representative Mike Ross, leader of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats on Capitol Hill, was a boost to Barack Obama as he held two back-to-back town hall meetings in North Carolina, and in Virginia.

That the log-jam had been broken represented a big boost for President Obama, who departed from his prepared stump script to thank lawmakers "who are working so hard to find common ground. Those efforts are extraordinarily constructive in strengthening this legislation and bringing down its cost".

After making healthcare reform his top legislative priority since taking office, Mr Obama has made himself a virtual hostage of the fraught negotiating on Capitol Hill as liberals have found themselves stymied, not just by Republicans but also by conservative Democrats who are suspicious of the likely costs of reform and dislike even the barest suggestion that government is inserting itself into the private healthcare market.

"The President is enormously thankful," that fresh progress had been made, his spokesman, Robert Gibbs said. "Obviously the news is a big step forward."

The main Democratic leadership in the House had been struggling for days behind the scenes to win over the party's conservative rump that had identified 10 areas of the proposed legislation they could not support. Mr Ross said a new compromise would strip about 10 per cent from the cost of the reforms from $1 trillion (£600bn) to about $900bn over 10 years.

Officials said the breakthrough would allow the compromise draft to go to full debate in the Energy and Commerce Committee later yesterday. It remained unlikely, however, that a bill would reach the floor of the full House before it breaks for the summer at the end of this week as Mr Obama had first hoped.

Progress in the US Senate on its version of the healthcare reform bill also seemed stop-start in nature. However, Democrat Senator Max Baucus, who heads the key Senate Finance Committee, indicated that similar steps had been taken to pare down the overall cost of the reforms.

He also pointed to new research from the Congressional Budget Office saying the Senate version of reform would eventually save the federal government money.