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Health care talks in overdrive

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats rushed to strike final deals on historic health care legislation Friday amid rising concern that the outcome of a special Senate election in Massachusetts could sink the bill. Obama prepared to fly to the state on Sunday for last-minute campaigning.

''If Scott Brown wins, it'll kill the health bill,'' said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. Frank said Democratic candidate Martha Coakley should have campaigned harder for the seat held for decades by Edward Kennedy, but he also said he thinks she'll win Tuesday's contest anyway.

The latest polls show an unexpectedly close race between Brown and Coakley. Brown has said he would vote against the health bill, which would probably take it down because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., does not have a vote to spare. All Republicans are opposed.

Obama taped a campaign plea that will be telephoned to Massachusetts voters, and he will campaign personally for Coakley this weekend. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed suggestions the Republican would win in Massachusetts and declared, ''As you heard the president say yesterday, we're going to get health care done.''

Frank's blunt statement captured anxieties circulating in the Capitol as lawmakers intensified the already frantic pace of negotiations to reconcile the numerous differences between House and Senate versions of the legislation. The goal was to send the tax and spending provisions of the package to the Congressional Budget Office later in the day for a cost estimate, a necessary step before votes are cast. It was not clear if negotiators would pull that off.

''I don't know,'' House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said when asked if the informal deadline could be met. ''We're going to go back to the White House and talk about some other issues this afternoon and probably have a better idea as to when we can send something.''

Obama and congressional negotiators have participated in marathon talks in recent days. Hours of discussion ended after 1 a.m. Friday and resumed in the afternoon at the White House. Adding to the pressure, negotiators were searching both for more funding and additional cost control measures.

A deal with organized labor to weaken a proposed tax on high-cost insurance plans left the legislation short in both areas, though the agreement secured critical political support. The tax was designed to nudge people with generous coverage into more cost-effective health plans, reducing health care spending.

Reducing the impact of the tax left a $60-billion revenue hole in the bill. ''That's part of the conversation -- how you make it up,'' said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.