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Obama, top Dems to tackle health reform alternatives

  • Story Highlights
  • Five top Democratic leaders to meet with President Obama on Monday afternoon
  • Group set to discuss how to pay for health care reform bills stalled in Congress
  • At issue: Which taxes should be raised to cover the nearly $1 trillion price tag
From Ted Barrett
CNN Congressional Producer
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Obama will huddle with five top congressional Democrats on Monday afternoon to discuss how to pay for the health care reform bills that are stalled in Congress, largely over the issue of which taxes should be raised to cover the $1 trillion price tag, congressional aides told CNN.

President Obama will meet with top congressional Democrats to discuss how to pay for health care.

President Obama will meet with top congressional Democrats to discuss how to pay for health care.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed the meeting during his daily press briefing.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada will join the chairs of the tax-writing committees in the House and Senate -- Rep. Charlie Rangel of New York and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana -- for the White House gathering. A Democratic aide told CNN that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is also attending the meeting.

Obama invited the leaders to the 4:30 p.m. meeting in part to sift through the various proposals lawmakers are considering to raise hundreds of billions of dollars for health reform.

It's Obama's first health care reform meeting with congressional leaders since returning from an overseas trip.

On Capitol Hill, aides were reluctant to publicize the meeting. One said it was meant to be kept "secret."

Republicans and Democrats, meanwhile, sparred Sunday over how to pay for health care reform.

Some Democrats rejected a proposal to start taxing health care benefits provided by employers. At the same time, momentum among Democrats seems to be building for Obama's proposal to limit tax deductions for those earning more than $250,000 a year.

Republicans oppose the high cost of health care reform, as well as key components of Democratic proposals, including higher taxes on the wealthy. However, some Republicans expressed support for taxing employer-provided benefits of the most expensive health insurance plans.

Last week, negotiations on House legislation hit a snag when fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats pressed the Democratic leadership for big changes to the draft bill, which include a government-run health care plan to compete with private insurers.

Democratic leaders worked over the past couple of weeks to finalize details of legislation for a Friday rollout. But the Blue Dog coalition sent a letter late Thursday night saying the bill "lacks a number of elements essential to preserving what works and fixing what is broken."

Meanwhile, a new analysis from Congress indicates that a health care reform bill being worked up by Senate Democrats -- which includes a public insurance plan and requires employers to cover workers -- would cost $611 billion over 10 years, far less than previous estimates. Video Watch senators spar over health care reform »

In coming weeks, Senate Democrats will have to decide whether they will try to force through their plan or continue to negotiate with Republicans for a bill that would likely be less expensive and contain a much smaller role for government in the health care system.

Supporters of a government-run insurance program, including the president, have argued it would keep down costs.

Recent surveys show some support for a public option.

A CNN-Opinion Research Corp. survey released July 1 found 51 percent support Obama's health care plan, but most worry that their costs would go up, and only one in five think their families would be better off.

Other polls showed opposition to taxing health benefits provided by employers.

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed only 20 percent of respondents support a possible new tax on employer-provided health care benefits, and a Washington Post/ABC News poll found 70 percent opposed it. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 54 percent of respondents oppose the new tax.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that Obama opposes taxing health benefits, but stopped short of calling it a deal-breaker for the president.

Instead, she advocated Obama's proposal to cap tax exemptions for the wealthy -- those earning more than $250,000 a year -- to the levels under Republican President Reagan in the 1980s.

The proposal would raise an estimated $330 billion, Sebelius said, which would cover most of the health care reform costs not met by reduced spending on existing programs.

"The bottom line is, it's got to be paid for, and we all have a shared responsibility that we all need to play a role," Sebelius said.

On the same program, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee took the opposite stance, rejecting higher income taxes for the wealthy but calling for a new tax on the benefits of the most expensive employer-provided health insurance plans.

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He and other Republicans support a plan that would give Americans cash -- initial figures suggest $5,000-$7,000 a year -- to buy their own private health insurance instead of creating a government-funded public option favored by Obama.

"If we've got a Cadillac insurance plan and your employer gives you that, then some of it's going to be taxed," Alexander said, with the new revenue helping to "give everybody a chance to buy their own health care insurance."

CNN's Ed Hornick and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

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