Baucus Confident on Bipartisan Support for Health Care Bill

Mont. Democrat confident of bipartisanship on the final bill.

September 16, 2009, 10:08 AM

Sept. 16, 2009— -- Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus today released a 10-year, $856 billion health care proposal, which is already being met with criticism on both sides of the political aisle.

The Montana Democrat dubbed his bill as balanced and fiscally responsible. At a news conference, Baucus expressed confidence that the final bill will get bipartisan support, despite his appearing without any fellow party members or Republicans.

"Everyone should understand it's just the beginning, but it's a good beginning. The choice is now on those on the other side of the aisle," he said. "At the end of the day, there will be Republican support for this bill."

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates the Baucus bill would cost a total of $774 billion over 10 years. But the bill would, in effect, cost more than $800 billion, Finance committee staffers say, because of differences in scoring between the CBO and Finance committee. That would not account for the $900 billion in federal revenue raised by taxes on insurance companies, employers who don't offer coverage and assumed cost savings in Medicare that are envisioned to pay for the bill and keep it deficit neutral.

The White House had little to say about the plan, except that it would provide momentum to the president's goal of achieving health care overhaul in the near future.

"Last week, the president laid out his plan to bring stability and security to Americans who have insurance, and high-quality, high-quality, affordable coverage for those who don't have insurance," White House spokesman Reid Cherlin said. "The Senate Finance Committee [proposal] released by chairman Baucus is another boost of momentum for the president's effort to reform the health system."

Under Baucus' plan, all Americans would be required to purchase health care or pay a fine if they don't. It also includes provisions barring insurance companies from prohibiting care based on pre-existing conditions, and prevents practices such as charging more to people with more serious health problems. But, at the same time, the language in the bill suggests that those rules could be relaxed based on tobacco use, age and family composition. It would also place caps on yearly health care costs.

Baucus' proposal includes a provision to create an insurance exchange system on the Internet, an idea President Obama also proposed last week during his joint address to Congress.

The "state-based Web portals, or 'exchanges,'... would direct consumers purchasing plans on the individual market to every health coverage option available in their Zip codes," according to the plan. "The exchanges would offer standardized health insurance enrollment applications, a standard format companies would use to present their insurance plans, and standardized marketing materials."

Much to the chagrin of some Democratic lawmakers and liberal groups, the proposal does not include any language for a government-run insurance plan that would compete with the private sector. But it opens the way for health care cooperatives -- member-owned, non-profit companies providing health insurance. All other bills produced in Congress so far -- three in the House and one in the Senate -- include a public option.

The proposal also outlines measures to improve and expand Medicaid. Baucus' plan would make all parents, children, pregnant women and childless adults at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty level eligible for Medicaid. The plan would be paid for with $507 billion in cuts to government health programs and $349 billion in new taxes and fees.

"The Finance Committee has carefully worked through the details of health care reform to ensure this package works for patients, for health care providers and for our economy," Baucus said in a statement. "We worked to build a balanced, common-sense package that ensures quality, affordable coverage and doesn't add a dime to the deficit. Now, we can finally pass legislation that will rein in health care costs and deliver quality, affordable care to the American people."

Under Baucus' plan, illegal immigrants would not get insurance, a point that became increasingly contentious after South Carolina's GOP Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during Obama's speech last week.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the Democrats are going to hold a special caucus Thursday to discuss the package put forward by the Finance Committee. Baucus' bill will be voted on next week in the Finance committee before it goes on to the Senate floor.

Since returning from recess last week, the "gang of six" senators of the Finance committee have been working for hours behind closed doors to reach a bipartisan solution. Baucus had set today as his deadline for the bill, despite outcry from both his party members and the GOP. Some Democrats said they would not vote for the bill in its current form because it lacks a "public option," a government-run insurance program that would compete with private insurance companies. Republicans say the plan is too costly.

Despite the differences, the bill that would pass the Senate Finance Committee has the best chance at bipartisanship. Bills proposed by three House committees and the Senate Committee on Health, Education and Labor led to backlash by conservatives and a rowdy recess for many Democratic lawmakers.

Democrats, Republicans Unhappy With Health Care Proposals

As some Democrats start the difficult task of rallying support in their own party for Baucus' health care plan, Republicans are lining up against it. Even those who were involved in the negotiations with Baucus, including Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, say additional talks are needed before they can get on board.

"I believe the chairman's legislation moves in the right direction away from a government-run system contained in bills that have passed other Congressional committees, but a number of issues still need to be addressed -- including cost assumptions and ultimate affordability to both consumers and the government as well as ensuring appropriate competition in the health insurance exchange," Snowe said in a statement.

Other GOP leaders are complaining that the plan would lead to a government takeover of health care in the United States but, at the same time, they are also raising alarm bells that the plan would cut benefits for seniors, who already receive government-run health care in the form of Medicare.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., gave Baucus' plan a thumbs down, saying that it will cut Medicare and set up government-run health care for others.

"This partisan proposal cuts Medicare by nearly a half-trillion dollars, and puts massive new tax burdens on families and small businesses, to create yet another thousand-page, trillion-dollar government program," McConnell said in a paper statement. "Only in Washington would anyone think that makes sense, especially in this economy."

McConnell added that it's just another "trillion-dollar" bill, although the Baucus bill is only $856 billion in its current form. As for Medicare cuts, the bill assumes those savings will be realized with greater efficiency.

Republicans are making a talking point of all the "thousand-page" bills Democrats want to pass, including the other health care bills and the stimulus package. The Baucus bill, as written, is only 223 pages long, but it will get longer when it's translated into legal language.

But Republican opposition is not the only issue that supporters of Baucus' plan will have to face. Even before the release of the proposal, Democrats expressed their disapproval with the lack of a public option in Baucus' proposal.

"There is no way, in its present form, that I vote for it unless it changes in the amendment process by vast amounts," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

Others expressed concern about the proposed taxes on higher-end insurance plans, expected to rake in about $349 billion in new taxes and fees.

"They tax the sort of wealthiest benefit packages, and you've got some health insurance, you know -- quite a bit of health insurance policies in America that during the next couple of years will top the $16,000 and $21,000 mark that exists in their bill that triggers taxation," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., on ABC News' "Top Line."

Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said the plan would cost lower-income Americans too much and give many people too little choice of insurance plans.

"If the Baucus proposal passes," Wyden said in an interview with the Washington Post. "They're going to say, 'Huh? Health-care security means I pay a whole lot more than I'm paying today or I get to be exempt from it, or I pay a penalty?' They're not going to say that meets the definition of health-care security.'"

ABC News' Teddy Davis contributed to this report.

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