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Conflicting reports on possibility of patients' rights deal

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A patients' bill of rights may indeed be considered in the House of Representatives by the end of this week, but key operatives on both sides of the issue would present vastly different odds on the probability of that debate actually happening.

The White House, for its part, seemed confident Tuesday that action on the bill was imminent.

"I think it is fair to say that the nation is on the threshold of having a patients' bill of rights that can be signed into law," said press secretary Ari Fleischer. "There is some additional work that needs to be done, but many of the differences that remain are easily bridgeable."

House Speaker Dennis Hastert has suggested that a bill might be brought to the floor by Thursday -- fulfilling his goal to complete debate before lawmakers scatter across the country for their August recess.

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The legislation was on the House schedule in each of the last two weeks but was pulled -- first because Republicans couldn't drum up enough support for the bill they favored, and later so the White House could negotiate with a maverick GOP physician-lawmaker who has sided with Democrats.

By Tuesday, the White House, in league with the House Republican leadership, had forged more of a bond with that physician, Rep. Charlie Norwood of Georgia, narrowing a number of their differences, but Democrats in the House and Senate said negotiations would have to show more progress.

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"Mr. Norwood came into my office and he said 'let's talk about the possibility of reaching agreement on the patients' bill of rights,'" President Bush said Tuesday at the White House. "And I said 'you bet.'"

"He brought some ideas right here into the Oval Office," Bush continued. "We don't have a specific deal but we're making good progress."

Asked by a reporter what he may have offered to Norwood as he worked toward a compromise, Bush said, "I'm offering to sign a bill and not veto it."

The Senate passed its own patients' rights law at the end of June. The language of that bill mirrors -- with some minor differences -- the language of the bill presented in the House by Norwood, Republican Greg Ganske of Iowa, also a physician, and Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan.

The authors of the successful Senate bill, most notably Sen. John Edwards, D-North Carolina, have stayed active while the House negotiations have continued.

Following a lengthy Monday night meeting between aides for Norwood and White House officials, Edwards said "additional issues" would have to be discussed if a wider congressional deal is to be struck with President Bush. Leaders of the Democratic-controlled Senate are hoping for a brief conference session should the Norwood-Ganske-Dingell bill pass the House.

If, in order to satisfy Bush, too many changes are made to the Norwood bill, the conference session to reconcile the House and Senate bills could prove difficult, Senate Democrats add.

For the most part, differences between the White House and those in support of the Norwood bill center on issues of liability. The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the late-night session between Norwood staff members and White House operatives yielded agreement on the question of lawsuits filed by patients alleging their HMOs denied them medical care they needed.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, also a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, said those claims of progress were too far-reaching. Kennedy said the two sides were nearing an agreement to restrict suits to federal court in cases where employers self-fund or self-administer their health plans. Kennedy said Bush was concerned that small businesses and their employees could suffer under the bill's current language.

"It's a response to the president's very legitimate concerns, and it ought to be the basis of a sound compromise," Kennedy said.

Norwood, speaking to a Reuters reporter Tuesday, said he was headed back to the White House to continue negotiations.

"We're obviously running out of time," he said.

What isn't clear at this point is the health of the rival patients' rights bill promoted exhaustively -- until a few days ago -- by the Bush White House. That bill was advanced by Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Kentucky.

The bills are virtually identical except when it comes to the ability of patients to sue their HMOs. The Norwood bill, which the House passed overwhelmingly in 1999, would offer broad rights to sue in state and federal courts in the event of physical harm or death.

The Fletcher bill would allow patients to sue in state court only if an HMO rejects medical decisions reached by an independent review board brought in to mediate disputes between a patient and HMO. The Fletcher bill would also allow suits in federal courts, but the Norwood bill would allow for larger court damages.

CNN's Ian Christopher McCaleb contributed to this report.

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