WASHINGTON - Americans would be fined up to $3,800 for failing to buy health insurance under a plan that circulated in Congress on Tuesday as divisions among Democrats undercut President Barack Obama's effort to regain traction on his health care overhaul.
As Obama talked strategy with Democratic leaders at the White House, the one idea that most appeals to his party's liberal base lost ground in Congress. Prospects for a government-run plan to compete with private insurers sank as a leading moderate Democrat said he could no longer support the idea.
The fast-moving developments put Obama in a box. As a candidate, he opposed fines to force individuals to buy health insurance, and he supported setting up a public insurance plan. On Tuesday, fellow Democrats publicly begged to differ on both ideas.
Democratic congressional leaders put on a bold front as they left the White House after their meeting with the president.
'We're re-energized; we're ready to do health care reform,' said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., insisted the public plan is still politically viable. 'I believe that a public option will be essential to our passing a bill in the House of Representatives,' she said.
After a month of contentious forums, Americans were seeking specifics from the president in his speech to a joint session of Congress tonight. So were his fellow Democrats, divided on how best to solve the problem of the nation's nearly 50 million uninsured.
The latest proposal: a ten-year, $900-billion bipartisan compromise that Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., a moderate who heads the influential Finance Committee, was trying to broker. It would guarantee coverage for nearly all Americans, regardless of medical problems.
But the Baucus plan also includes the fines that Obama has rejected. In what appeared to be a sign of tension, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs pointedly noted that the administration had not received a copy of the plan before it leaked to lobbyists and news media Tuesday.
The Baucus plan would require insurers to take all applicants, regardless of age or health. But smokers could be charged higher premiums. And 60-year-olds could be charged five times as much for a policy as 20-year-olds.
Some experts consider the $900-billion price tag a relative bargain because the country now spends about $2.5 trillion a year on health care. But it would require hefty fees on insurers, drug companies and others in the health care industry to help pay for it.
Just as auto coverage is now mandatory in nearly all states, Baucus would require that all Americans get health insurance once the system is overhauled. Penalties for failing to do so would start at $750 a year for individuals and $1,500 for families. Households making more than three times the federal poverty level - about $66,000 for a family of four - would face the maximum fines. For families, it would be $3,800, and for individuals, $950.