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Senate Democrats seek public option compromise

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats hunted for a compromise on a government-run insurance plan and battled Republicans on home care for the elderly on Saturday during a rare weekend work session on a sweeping healthcare overhaul.

With Democratic leaders pushing to finish the bill by the end of the year, President Barack Obama will meet with Senate Democrats at the Capitol on Sunday to encourage urge them to work out their differences on his top domestic priority.

Democrats met behind closed doors on Saturday in search of a compromise on the biggest remaining stumbling block, a government-run "public" plan to compete with private insurers.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid asked a group of liberal and moderate Democratic senators to find common ground that could attract the 60 votes he needs to overcome Republican procedural hurdles.

"Everyone is focused on trying to get a resolution here," Democratic Senator Mark Begich said of the talks. "It's a very robust discussion."

Several moderate Democrats are unhappy with the government plan included in the bill, but liberals who support the idea as a way to create competition for insurers have balked at watering down the plan any further.

Democratic Senator Tom Carper is working on a compromise that would create an insurance plan run by a non-profit board rather than the government. It would function in states where affordable insurance was not available.

"We're going to get a compromise," said Democratic Senator John Kerry, who added that some of the options would depend on reports from congressional budget analysts.

Democrats have little room for error. They control exactly 60 votes in the 100-member Senate, the number needed to overcome Republican opposition.

'DEVELOPING STAGE'

"This is still very much in the developing stage," said Democratic Senator Mark Pryor. "We're working on several ideas to see if we can make some progress."

Reid said the Senate would meet every Saturday and Sunday until work on the legislation is concluded, but Republicans said that would not dissuade them from opposing the bill.

"The majority leader believes that somehow if we stay in on weekends, the Republicans are going to blink. I can assure him we are not going to blink," Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said.

The overhaul would extend health insurance coverage to about 30 million uninsured Americans, require everyone to have health insurance and bar industry practices such as refusing coverage to those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Obama has staked much of his political capital on the bill and repeatedly pushed the Senate to finish its work by Christmas, before the debate extends into next year's congressional election campaign.

The House of Representatives passed its version last month. If the Senate passes a bill, the two will have to be reconciled in January and passed again by each chamber before being sent to Obama for his signature.

On the sixth day of debate on Saturday, the two parties kept up their battle over the bill's $400 billion in budget cuts for Medicare, the government health program for the elderly.

The Senate rejected on a 53-41 vote an amendment by Republican Senator Mike Johanns that would have restored $42 billion in cuts in Medicare payments to home health agencies.

"These programs will start to disappear," Johanns warned.

It was the third Republican amendment to focus on the Medicare cuts in a bid to build opposition to the healthcare overhaul by seniors, who polls show have concerns about the plan.

Kerry said the Medicare cuts would eliminate waste and make the program more effective. "This actually improves what Medicare beneficiaries are going to get," he said.

(Editing by Peter Cooney)

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