A long-awaited plan to revamp health care got a tepid response from lawmakers Wednesday, underscoring the challenge President Obama confronts as his top priority enters a critical new phase.
The proposal, estimated by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to cost $856 billion in the first 10 years, is the last of the health care bills to be drafted and the result of months of talks by a bipartisan group of senators called the "Gang of Six." No Republicans backed the measure Wednesday and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called it "just the beginning."
Starting next week, Obama and Democratic leaders face the daunting task of passing health care legislation in the Senate Finance Committee and then merging it with other proposals pending in Congress. At the same time they must quell infighting in their own party and fend off Republican attacks.
"This is a marathon, not a sprint," said Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a moderate Democrat whose vote is crucial to passing a health care bill.
The outline released by Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee, calls for expanding insurance to 29 million uninsured people. It would expand Medicaid, limit out-of-pocket costs, prohibit insurers from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, and require almost everyone to buy a policy by 2013.
Drew Altman, head of the Kaiser Family Foundation, credited Baucus for "trying to put together a centrist piece of legislation." White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the proposal "gets us closer to comprehensive health care reform."
But after months of negotiations and debate, including raucous town hall meetings and a rare address to Congress by Obama this month, some Democratic lawmakers acknowledged they are still a long way from finding a solution that will expand health coverage, reduce costs and remain deficit neutral.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon blasted the measure for not going far enough to expand access to insurance. "The president said that you should get the same deal that members of Congress get," he said. "That's not in the text."
Union leaders criticized the proposal because it does not include a government-run insurance program. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said it "absolutely fails to meet the most basic health care needs of working families." Instead of a public option, the bill sets aside $6 billion for the start-up of non-profit insurance cooperatives.
Republicans, on the other hand, continued to balk at the cost. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, called the Baucus proposal "partisan." Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, one of three Republicans involved in the committee's bipartisan talks, said the bill "moves in the right direction." Still, she withheld support.
Baucus said he remained confident legislation would pass this year. "Our health care system is simply unsustainable," he said. "That's why it's time to act. That's why this is our moment in history."