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Where Does Obama Stand on Taxing Health Benefits?

Turns out, it depends on whom you ask.

Following yesterday’s much-hyped White House meeting between President Obama and Senate Democratic leaders, two accounts have emerged about whether the president might support the idea of taxing employer-sponsored health insurance to help pay for the Democrats’ ambitious plans to revamp health care.

One version comes from Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who told reporters after the meeting: “Yeah, it’s something that he might consider … That was discussed. It’s on the table.”

The other version comes from White House spokesman Reid Cherlin, who attempted to downplay Baucus’ interpretation of events with this statement to The Washington Post:

The president made it clear during the campaign that he has serious concerns about taxing health-care benefits, and he has introduced his own revenue proposal, which he reiterated in today’s meeting.

At stake are billions of dollars of potential revenue. Indeed, Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation found last month that the federal government could have collected more than $226 billion in 2008 alone if it weren’t for the tax-deductability of employer-sponsored health coverage.

Joseph Antos, health care expert at the American Enterpirse Institute, said Obama’s refusal to rule out any options at this stage of the debate is a smart political strategy. Unlike the Clinton administration, which pushed a detailed health reform plan on Congress only to have Congress shoot it down, Obama instead is laying out a set of principles, Antos said, the details of which congressional lawmakers have the power to craft themselves.

In this context, the statements from Baucus and Cherlin aren’t as conflicting as they might first seem.

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