Finance Negotiators Still Talking Health Benefits Tax

By Lindsey Ellerson

Jul 20, 2009 6:20pm

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf reports: Bipartisan negotiations are back underway among moderates on the Senate Finance Committee. Meetings continued through the weekend with staffers and now senators are back in the Capitol Hill office of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. Entering the talks late this afternoon, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., talked about the importance of "bending the cost curve in the right direction" with health reform legislation. The nonpartisan director of the Congressional Budget Office told Conrad's Budget Committee last Thursday that Democratic plans in the House and the Senate Health Committee would not bring federal spending on health care under control. Conrad is a Democrat who supports taxing health care benefits – while health care benefits are a form of compensation that is currently tax free, taxing them to pay for health care has been rejected by liberals in the party and frowned on by the White House. Conrad said there are other ways (16 of them, he said) to raise the hundreds of billions of dollars needed  to pay for health care, but suggested that taxing benefits is one of the best ways. He asked why benefits worth more than $20,000 shouldn't be taxed – that is just one percent of health benefits plans, he said and why shouldn't those plans be taxed as part of the "shared sacrifice" of reform. A reporter pointed out that many Democrats have said taxing benefits is thought to be off the negotiation table. "Not for me," Conrad said. Baucus, who chairs the Finance Committee evaded several questions about when the Finance Committee might finish its closed-door negotiations. "We're going to keep meeting until we do," he said. Last week Baucus said President Obama was not being helpful on the issue of taxing of health care benefits. Baucus was asked today if the president being helpful. "He's being very helpful," said Baucus as he disappeared into his office for the meeting. Baucus would not give any specifics on the negotiations, but he said White House Budget Director Peter Orzsag had been involved in negotiations over the weekend and brought, "six, seven, eight new ideas" to the table. Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine, one of the few Republicans open to a comprehensive health reform plan that would also draw Democratic support, said it is important to figure out how to pay for health care reform now, before an overhaul is passed. She said Massachusetts lawmakers did not figure out how to pay for their proposal and now regret it. UPDATE 7:06 p.m. ET: These negotiations have wrapped for the evening and we have our first concrete status report out for the Finance Committee's mad dash for middle ground on health care reform. Sen. Max Baucus said negotiators have tentative agreement on four of the ten or so major issues they're wrangling with. So with half the points left to be tentatively agreed upon, it would seem we're nowhere near this committee cracking champagne. What's more, Baucus wouldn't say what the four issues they have tentative agreement on are. But he did say they are not all off-set with measures to pay for them (tax increases).

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