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McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON - The White House tried - and failed - Thursday to cool fierce Republican opposition to its health care overhaul by announcing a $25 million preliminary program aimed at eventually revamping the nation's controversial medical-malpractice legal system.

Republicans in Congress remained bitterly critical of Democratic health care efforts, while Democrats remained divided over how to proceed.

The malpractice plan was authorized by a two-page "presidential memorandum." By early next year, selected states, localities and health care systems will get up to $3 million each for experimental projects aimed at better protecting doctors from frivolous lawsuits while assuring patients fair settlements in cases of malpractice.

Key Republican lawmakers scoffed.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the plan "wasteful and unnecessary," while House Republican Study Committee Chairman Tom Price of Georgia, a physician, said, "We don't need to test the medical liability crisis; we need to end it."

There continued to be little consensus on broader health issues. The day after Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., offered a plan that he hoped would draw bipartisan support, few Democrats or Republicans were optimistic about finding common ground.

The Baucus plan, said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, "is the same big-government, costly approach the American people have already rejected."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., reiterated her support for a government-run alternative to private insurance. The Baucus plan has no such "public option" and instead proposes setting up nonprofit health care cooperatives at the state, regional or national levels.

Pelosi also voiced concerns that the Baucus bill would impose too many burdens on the middle class. It would impose a 35 percent excise tax on insurers once the costs of their policies top $8,000 for individuals and $21,000 for families. Many Democrats, and some key Republicans, are concerned that those taxes will be passed back to consumers.

Baucus also found that one of his key goals had slipped away: finding Republican support. Among moderates who have sided with Democrats often on fiscal issues in the past, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a Finance Committee member, also voiced concerns about the middle class, while Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that while she was pleased that Baucus' bill had no public option, she was worried that the package "does not do enough to lower health care costs for all Americans."

In fact, she said, "some Americans could wind up paying more for their health insurance."

Obama had hoped to get at least Republican sympathy with his malpractice proposal. When he spoke to a joint session of Congress last week, he said, "I know that the Bush administration considered authorizing demonstration projects in individual states to test these issues. It's a good idea."