By Jackie Frank
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama said on Tuesday U.S. healthcare reform was "closer than ever," but fought to keep some fellow Democrats from deserting his chief policy initiative amid worries about its $1 trillion (607.9 billion pound) cost.
Several key Democrats joined Republicans in Congress in suggesting a slower timetable for overhauling the $2.5 trillion industry, which could push passage back from Obama's October deadline but still lock in changes before lawmakers turn their focus to the 2010 mid-term elections.
Although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would keep urging the chamber to act before its monthlong August recess, he told reporters, "The goal is not deadlines, the goal is comprehensive healthcare reform."
In the House of Representatives, Democrat Louise Slaughter, who chairs the House Rules Committee that guides bills to the floor, told reporters that leaders still planned to bring a healthcare bill to a vote next week.
She added they might also be prepared to stay in session beyond the July 31 recess to keep working towards a deal.
The Democratic-led House has run into problems over funding for the $1 trillion, 10-year overhaul plan.
The plan working its way through Congress seeks to set up a government-run health insurance program to compete with private insurers, expand coverage to most of the 46 million uninsured, and hold down soaring healthcare costs that are rising faster than inflation.
Obama on Tuesday repeated his pledge the reforms must not worsen the government's debt -- a limitation that has been hard for congressional leaders to observe.
House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer said problems came from all directions, not just the "Blue Dog" group of fiscally conservative Democrats that raised public concerns over cost.
"I want to make it very clear that there's progressives, Blue Dogs and everybody in between who have expressed concerns and we're working on that," he said.
Obama met at the White House with some Blue Dogs --so named out of a sense liberals had choked them "blue" -- over their concerns the new healthcare system would not save money for consumers or the government and would worsen the already burgeoning federal debt.
"Before we consider any kind of new revenue, they (voters) want us to squeeze every ounce of savings that we can out of the current system. That's what we're demanding," Representative Mike Ross told reporters after the meeting.
Ross is on the House Energy and Commerce Committee that cancelled Tuesday's drafting session in order to hear out fiscal conservatives about what they need to vote for the bill. The bloc is large enough that it could scuttle the plan.
Committee Chairman Henry Waxman told reporters Obama stressed "his great, strong, firm commitment" that healthcare reform not add to the federal deficit.
NOT WHERE IT NEEDS TO BE
Another panel, the House Ways and Means Committee, was to meet on Wednesday where it was expected to discuss taxes and other roadblocks to its version of the bill. Its plan to add a tax on the wealthy, to raise about $544 billion over 10 years, has come under fire.
Obama, asked on NBC's "Today" show whether he would sign any of the bills working through Congress, said, "Right now, they're not where they need to be."
But he said he was confident the final legislation would drive down spiralling healthcare costs over time -- fulfilling his repeated promises to come to grips with a problem that has flummoxed generations of U.S. politicians.
While Obama has been pushing Congress to land a healthcare bill on his desk by October, he has been saying recently he wants it by the end of the year.
"What we're seeing currently is a bipartisan majority has formed against the current proposal. ... Either this bill fails or it will change dramatically," Representative Eric Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House and a member of the Ways and Means Committee, told reporters.
Obama was holding a second week of public appearances to drum up support for healthcare reform and is scheduled to hold a prime-time news conference on Wednesday where healthcare was expected to be the focus.
"It's going to be a tough sell," said Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, who urged Obama to tell people how the plan would make them better off. Nelson has urged they go slower.
Obama said again he would oppose taxing healthcare benefits, an idea been brought up in closed-door meetings of the Senate Finance Committee. The panel's chairman, Max Baucus, said it was making "significant headway" after meeting for weeks to figure out ways to pay for healthcare overhaul.
While most Americans get health insurance coverage through their employers, small firms that do not provide it worry they would not be able to afford to meet a government mandate that they contribute to workers' insurance.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Kim Dixon, Donna Smith, Tabassum Zakaria, John Whitesides, Jeff Mason, Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney)