Pelosi seeks to spare middle class from health care tax

Ensuring that the middle class doesn't have to pay the $1 trillion-plus price for overhauling the nation's health care system will mean trimmiing billions of dollars in "fat" out of the current health care system, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told USA TODAY's editorial board Tuesday.

"I wanted to remove all doubt that we were not touching the middle class on this," Pelosi said, explaining why she has advocated in recent days for a higher income threshold for taxes proposed in the House version of the health care bill. "When you go there you get less money because there are fewer people so you have to adjust the fee, but you can't adjust it endlessly. It has to be responsible."

President Obama continued to push for for quick legislation Tuesday and had harsh words Tuesday for those who want to "block" health care legislation.

"Time and again we've heard excuses to delay" health care reform, Obama said in brief remarks from the White House Rose Garden. But he also stressed the "common ground" that has already been forged on Capitol Hill.

"We have traveled long and hard to reach this point," Obama said adding that "we are closer than ever before to the reform that the American people need, and we're going to get the job done."

Lawmakers in Congress are debating ways to pay for Obama's pledge to provide health insurance to the 50 million people in the country who do not have it.

House Democrats are considering a $544 billion tax on families that earn more than $350,000 a year, but Pelosi wants to raise the income threshold to $1 million for joint filers.

Pelosi also said she believes there is more savings to be found in the current system that could be used to pay for expanding the system.

"Many members think there's more to be squeezed from hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and docs out of this bill," Pelosi said. "I believe there's more to be squeezed."

Pelosi said the tax proposal is not holding up the legislation — which has been passed by two House committees and is being worked on by a third — though it's that very issue that 22 freshman Democrats wrote to Pelosi about earlier this month, arguing that the surtax on high earners would hurt small businesses.

"The proposed surcharge would put successful family-owned companies … at a major tax disadvantage to their larger corporate competitors," the letter read. "We believe that any revenues for the health care program should be collected from a larger base than the critical small business sector."

Pelosi continued to say she is confident the House can vote on the bill next week.

Entering a closed-door Democratic meeting later in the day, House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., told another lawmaker: "No one wants to tell the Speaker that she's moving too fast and they damn sure don't want to tell the president." Rangel's panel finished its portion of the House bill last week.

The proposal to tax high-earners, regardless of how that is defined, has not been well received in the Senate, where members of the Finance Committee continue to work on a health care proposal that they hope will receive support from Democrats and Republicans.

Finance chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., emerged from a meeting late Monday to say members are considering several new ideas to pay for health care legislation proposed by Obama's budget chief, Peter Orszag.

"They're interesting, they're creative," Baucus said. "Some of them are kinda fun. But I don't go farther… who knows which ones we're going to agree to or not."

Contributing: David Jackson in Washington, D.C.; Associated Press