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Senator aims for quick action on health reform

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 WASHINGTON (AP) — A key Senate committee chairman said Tuesday he wants a comprehensive health care reform bill on the Senate floor by early summer.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., set out the aggressive schedule a day after President Barack Obama designated a White House health reform czar and nominated Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius to head the department of Health and Human Services.

Obama also made health reform a priority in his budget proposal last week, and is preparing to host a White House summit on the issue Thursday.

All that sets the stage for Congress to transform Obama's goal of universal coverage into legislation.

"There's never been a better moment" for that to happen, Baucus said at a forum at the Kaiser Family Foundation, even while signaling that Obama's outline of a plan is certain to undergo major changes before lawmakers are through.

Meanwhile, the hurdles lawmakers face were underscored by a conservative group's announcement of an ad campaign warning against a "big government takeover" of health care. Conservatives for Patients Rights said its ads would run for three weeks on conservative talk radio shows and cable TV news stations in Washington, D.C.

In his budget Obama proposed a 10-year, $634 billion fund as a down payment on health care reform. Half the money would come from tax increases on upper-income earners; the other half from cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

Both approaches are meeting controversy from various constituencies they would affect.

Baucus called Obama's tax increase proposal "interesting" but declined to endorse it outright. "You've got to start somewhere," he said. "There's lots of ways to deal with it."

Covering all Americans could end up costing more than $1 trillion. Both Obama and Baucus want to build on the current employer-based system.

Baucus reiterated Tuesday that lawmakers should consider taxing some health benefits as a way to get more money for reform measures. That's something Obama has rejected in the past but that's favored by some Republicans.

Baucus declined to offer other specifics about where the added money would come from, but he insisted he wants a bill that covers everyone and pays for itself. He wants to do it jointly with his Republican counterpart on the Finance Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.

He said he's been meeting regularly with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., the Senate health committee chairman and longtime champion of health care reform who is under treatment for brain cancer. The two are to have lunch this week.

Baucus said he's also meeting with leaders of the House health care committees.

 Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.




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