Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters at a briefing "it's an ambitious goal, but I'd like to have us ready for the floor by June or July before the August recess. I'd say June.
"It's time to move from first steps to giant steps," he said.
Baucus's committee is likely to be one of two in the Senate that will write and approve any significant health care legislation this year. The other is the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee, chaired by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., a longtime champion of universal health care.
Baucus told reporters at a briefing at the Kaiser Family Foundation that he has been consulting with Kennedy about how to design such a bill and expects to meet with him later this week.
Kennedy, who suffers from brain cancer, has reportedly been staying in Florida for treatment since President Barack Obama was inaugurated. The senior Massachusetts senator has insisted, however, that he will play a key role in the debate over the bill.
Baucus's comments came just two days before the president convenes a "health summit" at the White House and days after he released a budget blueprint that would set aside $634 billion over 10 years for health care coverage. The president's plan offers few specifics, but calls for working with Congress to set the U.S. on a path toward universal coverage.
Baucus said he was pleased with Mr. Obama's goal and said he would avoid drawing "lines in the sand" so he could work with Republicans, including the committee's ranking member, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
"Everything has to be on the table, everything," Baucus said, adding that he would "just keep talking, keep working with people" in the hopes of drawing more than 51 votes in favor of any bill.
"We have to suspend judgment against concepts that we may otherwise illogically -- or for whatever reason -- automatically knee jerk against. We just need to keep open minds. Do not say no to anything for at least five to 10 minutes."
Along those lines, Baucus suggested one new revenue stream he would consider: the taxing of employee health benefits to help pay for universal coverage and provide care for 46 million uninsured Americans. A majority of workers receive their health insurance through their employer and are not taxed for the benefit, while their employer claims a deduction. Baucus said he did not want to eliminate the tax break. but thought it could be limited to help pay for an overhaul of health care that may cost more than $1 trillion.
Some health care economists say changing that tax break would drive more Americans to buy insurance from the individual market -- and potentially erode employer-sponsored coverage.
"I think that that the provision should be on the table, because currently it's too regressive," he said. "It just skews the system. It skews the system, it's regressive and ... it's a source of revenue."
Baucus also made it clear that he did not see any possibility of Congress -- or the public -- approving a shift toward single-payer government-run health care.
"This is not a single pay country. Some suggest it, but I don't think it's there," he said. "America, we are a bit different than people in other countries. We are not Europe. We are not Canada. We are America. It is 'Go west, young man.' It is entrepreneurism. It is creativity. It is innovation and so forth. And I think we have come up with a uniquely American solution which is a combination of public and private."
Despite heavy odds against such a broad health care overhaul, Baucus said he was more optimistic of its prospects than ever.
"This is the most difficult legislative challenge in my life and I relish it," he said. "Bottom line, there is a real deep desire among many Republicans to find a solution."
Meanwhile, key members of the House spoke to a meeting of the Federation of American Hospitals Tuesday on what role government health programs will play in a future reform effort.
Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the meeting any new system would work best with "creative tension" between public and private insurers, according to Reuters.
But Roy Blunt, R- Mo., Chairman of the House Republican Health Care Task Force, offered a different view, saying "if the government is one of the competitors, eventually there are no competitors left."
"Competition is important. The president said he wanted competition and wanted the private sector out there," Blunt said. "But the government doesn't have to factor in what the real world has to factor in."