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Dems meet with Obama on House, Senate health care bills

From Dana Bash, Deirdre Walsh and Ted Barrett, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Dems morning meeting with president turned into all-day negotiations
  • Meeting tried to bridge differences in the House and Senate health care bills
  • The meetings did not finish until after 6:30 p.m.
  • There is a deep House-Senate Democratic divide over how to pay for plan

Washington (CNN) -- A morning meeting on health care between the president and Democratic leaders turned into all-day negotiations as they tried to bridge differences in the House and Senate health care bills.

The meetings did not finish until after 6:30 p.m.

Senior congressional Democratic sources told CNN that the White House is pushing them hard to move quickly to resolve differences on a broad range of issues. The president and his top aides are being more aggressive than ever before in trying to broker a deal.

Though Democratic leaders and White House officials are tight-lipped about specifics, there is a deep House-Senate Democratic divide over how to pay for health care reform.

"Today we made significant progress in bridging the remaining gaps between the two health insurance reform bills," President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a joint statement Wednesday evening.

"We're encouraged and energized, and we're resolved to deliver reform legislation that provides more stability and security for those with insurance, extends coverage to those who don't have coverage, and lowers costs for families, businesses and governments."

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Obama has made clear he favors the Senate Democrats approach -- taxing high cost insurance plans. That has caused an eruption inside unions who oppose that approach.

Several sources said that labor union representatives were also at the White House Wednesday, their second round of meetings there this week.

Many House Democrats who worry the tax would hit too many middle class Americans also oppose that approach, and have been quite vocal about their frustration.

A House Democratic leadership aide told CNN the White House is pushing House Democrats to make a deal fast, saying "The speaker is also pushing for one, but won't just accept the Senate deal," he said, referring to Pelosi.

The meeting lasted from about 10:30 a.m. ET until about 6:40 p.m., according to White House spokesman Reid Cherlin. Obama attended most of the meeting, but was in and out because of the situation in Haiti following a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Vice President Joe Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius both attended portions of the meeting, Cherlin said.

Rep. Rob Andrews, D-New Jersey, was not in the meetings, but was briefed by leaders on the House floor when they came back briefly for votes Wednesday afternoon.

He told reporters that there was discussion about a range of issues, including ideas to change the Senate's proposed Cadillac tax on high end insurance plans -- to make it more palatable to House Democrats and unions.

"What I believe you will see is a lessening of the tax's impact on a broad subset of people," Andrews said.

But Andrews said there is no agreement yet on how to do this, though several ideas on the table include raising the threshold, changing the index, or carving out some types of plans currently hit by the tax.

The Senate plan taxes insurance plans for families that cost $23,000 and higher. Democratic sources have said a leading idea is to raise that, in the hopes of affecting fewer workers that get high-cost plans through their employers.

Andrews said he believes the president's involvement is key to finalizing a deal.

"The president's always been willing to find the consensus point. It's pretty clear that that requires some change in the excise tax to get a majority in the House."

Andrews said Democratic negotiators were also discussing a way to expand the Senate's Medicare payroll tax to make up lost revenue from dropping the House surcharge on the wealthy. "It's more practical and easy to build on something the Senate has already done," he said.

The extended White House meeting forced Pelosi and other leaders to miss the kick off of their own annual legislative retreat. Google CEO Eric Schmidt was scheduled to address House Democrats Wednesday night at the Library of Congress.