WASHINGTON -- White House officials are pressing key House Republicans to scale back the kind of lawsuits allowed under a Senate-passed patients rights bill just enough to allow President Bush to claim victory.
The focus was on Rep. Charlie Norwood, the Georgia dentist and pivot man in whatever the House passes on the popular legislation.
Democrats hope he will deliver enough fellow Republicans in the House to pass the Senate version. The White House hopes he will help pass a version closer to Bush's liking.
House leaders planned to bring the bill up for a vote Thursday, just before Congress takes off on a monthlong vacation, regardless of whether Norwood yields to the White House pleas, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
After going back and forth with Norwood in a back room of the Capitol until nearly midnight Tuesday, administration officials scheduled another meeting for Wednesday morning between the congressman and Bush at the White House.
"I'm an optimistic fellow, even when it's not sensible," Norwood said during a break in the talks.
In general, both sides agree that everybody with insurance would receive new guarantees such as the right to emergency room care, access to specialists, minimum hospital stays for mastectomies and access to government-run clinical trials.
The dispute -- pitting Bush and most Republicans on the one hand against Democrats, Norwood and a handful of other Republicans on the other -- has revolved around circumstances under which HMOs could be sued and limits on damages they could be forced to pay.
Senate Democrats are awaiting the latest word, arguing that their work in the Senate in June and their latest offers of easing lawsuits against some large employers are signs of good faith bargaining.
"We have moved step by step toward the president," said Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a co-sponsor of the bill.
For anything to become law, the House and Senate eventually must agree on the same provisions.
Despite a break with the White House earlier this year, Norwood has spent recent days shuttling between the administration and his own bipartisan supporters. He has said only that he wants compromise and won't discuss details in public.
House leaders said it was up to Norwood to persuade Democrats.
Several Republican sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House and GOP leaders have concluded that Democrats were unlikely to agree to terms that Bush would find acceptable.
"We're willing to work on any issue to get this bill signed into law," said Edwards, a trial lawyer whose firm represented HMO victims in North Carolina. "We have already made significant moves in the direction of the president."
The Edwards camp agreed Tuesday to offer a concession to the White House under which companies that finance and administer their own plans could be sued only in federal court.
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