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U.S. House Republican unity tested on Obamacare alternative

The federal government forms for applying for health coverage are seen at a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely refe
The federal government forms for applying for health coverage are seen at a rally held by supporters of the Affordable Care Act, widely refe

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A month after Republicans rallied around offering an alternative to President Barack Obama's healthcare law in an election-year move to broaden their appeal to voters, divisions are surfacing over the issue in the U.S. House of Representatives.

House Speaker John Boehner has not committed to voting this year on legislation to replace Obama's landmark Affordable Care Act. Different ideas are circulating among Republicans, ranging from those who want broad legislation to others who seek targeted measures.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor brought together committee chairmen and other Republican leaders, who have controlled the House since January 2011, to discuss healthcare legislation on Friday.

"It was a beginning discussion," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp said in an interview after the meeting.

"The goal is to develop consensus along healthcare policy," said Camp, whose committee is one of a few with oversight of healthcare legislation.

He would not speculate on whether Republicans will be able to produce legislation on the House floor this year.

The often-fractured congressional Republicans had ended a retreat outside of Washington on January 31, delighted that they had settled on an agenda for 2014 that centered on replacing the law, which has had a troubled rollout.

Republicans had been concerned that simply voting to repeal the law, as they have done more than 40 times, would not be enough to carry them through November's congressional elections.

Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, told reporters on Thursday that it was important for the party to come up with "better solutions" on healthcare.

Asked about his plans to move legislation, Boehner said the party would continue discussions on replacing the law, known as Obamacare, and seek member input.

"We're going to go through a lot of ideas," Boehner said.

Republicans say Obamacare, passed in 2010, relies heavily on government action in healthcare, resulting in interference in the marketplace.

The law requires most Americans to buy health insurance, offers subsidies to help low-income people receive coverage and sets minimum standards for coverage. It aims to dramatically reduce the number of Americans without health insurance.

Representative Tom Price, a physician who wants to repeal Obamacare and replace it with "soup-to-nuts reform of healthcare," said such a wholesale effort is "not a viable option at this point."

Price said that instead, House Republicans must find "four, five or six areas" that a vast majority of them can agree on and roll them together into a healthcare bill before the August recess.

COMPREHENSIVE BILL

Disagreements over what bill or bills to bring to the House floor were on display on Thursday during a panel on the future of U.S. healthcare that was sponsored by several conservative groups, including the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation.

Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who heads a large group of conservative House Republicans, made a pitch for a comprehensive bill that would repeal Obamacare and replace it with new limits on medical malpractice suits and expanded access to health savings accounts.

More than half of the House's 232 Republicans are sponsoring the bill that also would allow people to buy health insurance across state lines and take steps that Democrats have criticized as insufficient to meet patients' insurance needs.

Republican Representative Michael Burgess of Texas, an obstetrician and leading voice in his party's healthcare debate, countered Scalise, saying, "The big-bill concept is one I don't support."

Burgess said he would like to see more targeted bills move through the House that address the most pressing problems from Obamacare, such as premium amounts and doctor and provider payments.

Larger issues such as a repeal might be best postponed until after this year's elections or even after the 2016 presidential election, when Republicans might be in a stronger position, he said.

"Washington is pretty unpopular right now. I don't think you have the political capital to spend in one lift," he said in a telephone interview, referring to Scalise's bill.

Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who has close ties to the House Republican leadership, said in an interview on Wednesday that "there is an awful lot of political impetus" for taking action on healthcare, given how controversial Obamacare has become.

When members of Congress visit their home districts, Cole said, "constituents ask them, 'What are you doing about it?'"

Yet Cole acknowledged that passing an Obamacare replacement in the House, which likely would be rebuffed by the Senate, would be "tricky" given the intricacies of healthcare and the varying views among House Republicans.

(Additional reporting by David Lawder; Editing by Caren Bohan, Mohammad Zargham and Amanda Kwan)

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