Not So Fast: GOP Sours on Obama August Health Care Deadline

Sen. Olympia Snowe on health care reform: "It's important to get it right."

July 16, 2009, 7:31 AM

July 16, 2009 — -- After a 45-minute meeting with President Obama, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said the president's August timeline for health care legislation is a "Herculean goal" but was optimistic that a bipartisan bill could be achieved and that the two Senate bills could be fused together.

"We shouldn't be restrained by an artificially compressed timeline," Snowe told reporters, adding that the key is to have legislation that would "engender confidence with the American people."

"It's important to get it right," she told reporters.

Snowe will be an extremely important vote if either Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., or Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., are too sick to make it to a health care reform vote. Both remain absent from committee proceedings, and Democrats will need a GOP member to get 60 votes if both Kennedy and Byrd are missing for a final vote.

President Obama, meantime, was at a rally in Holmdel, N.J., this afternoon where he continued his health care reform push.

"The health care debate is about to heat up," the president told the crowd attending a rally for New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine.

The president said containing health care costs is essential.

"The price of doing nothing about health care is a price that every taxpayer and every business and every family will have to pay," he said.

Meanwhile, Snowe met Thursday afternoon with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., in closed-door sessions following her meeting at the White House.

"Every senator complains that we're spending too much and not getting enough for it," Grassley told reporters. "Well, you're not going pass a bill to spend more and get less for it."

Grassley, the ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, said if the president really wanted to change health care, he would flaunt labor unions and get behind a proposal to tax some level of employee benefits.

"We feel that the president, does he really want to bend the cost curve?" Grassley asked. "He ought to be out in front of this issue. He ought to endorse it. ... It depends on what you want to do. Do you want to spend more on health care or do you want to bring the cost curve down?"

The senator said he asked the president to endorse taxing health care benefits, but the president told him "he couldn't do it."

As Snowe was meeting with Obama at the White House, health care discussions continued on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., slammed assertions that the plans proposed by the president and congressional Democrats would not save taxpayers and the federal government money in the long haul.

Congressional Budget Office director Doug Elmendorf said today that the legislation under discussion would raise costs instead of lowering them.

Reid had a tart response to Elmendorf's remarks.

"What he should do is maybe run for Congress," Reid said when asked to respond to Elmendorf's analysis.

The CBO is a nonpartisan office and Elmendorf was appointed by the Democratic leadership in the House.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also disagreed with Elmendorf's statement.

"They don't score in any positive way prevention, wellness, [or] negotiation for lower [cost] pharmaceutical drugs," she said.

At a hearing of the Senate Budget Committee, Elmendorf said CBO does not see health care net cost savings in either of the partisan Democratic bills currently in Congress.

When asked by committee Chairman Conrad whether the bills would "bend the cost curve," Elmendorf said, "The curve is being raised."

"In the legislation that has been reported, we do not see the sort of fundamental changes that would be necessary to reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount," Elmendorf said. "And on the contrary, the legislation significantly expands the federal responsibility for health care costs."

Elmendorf said that subsidies to help uninsured people would raise federal health care spending, which is already growing at an unsustainable rate.

But in a separate hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee today, he did not respond to questions by Republicans asking about the cost of the House Democratic bill, only to say that "We ... cannot do quantitative analysis [on the bill] beyond 10 years."

Today, the president met separately with Sens. Snowe and Ben Nelson, D-Neb., to discuss health care, while three congressional committees continue discussions on the House Democrats $1.5 billion health overhaul legislation.

Snowe doesn't share Obama's view that legislation needs to be voted on before the August recess -- which begins in 16 days for the House and 22 for the Senate.

The Maine senator is the only Republican in the Senate who has publicly said she could support a government-run public health insurance option if the market fails to adequately insure everyone -- not quite on the same page as the president and Democrats, who want the option right off the bat, but closer than her Republican counterparts are.

In recent weeks, Snowe has veered toward a proposal by moderate Democrat Conrad to create a series of regional, nonprofit insurance co-ops to compete with for-profit insurance companies instead of a public insurance option.

On Wednesday, the Senate health committee -- one of five committees in Congress mulling a health care reform bill -- approved one version on a party-line vote of 13-10. House Democrats unveiled their $1.04 trillion, 10-year plan for health care reform Tuesday. But it remains to be seen which plan -- if any -- will get passed into law by Congress this year.

Under the House plan, sweeping changes to the health care system would cover 97 percent of Americans and include a mandate requiring all Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fine. Subsidies would be available to those with an income of less than $88,000.

The plan would also eliminate co-payments and deductibles for preventive care, and there would be no denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Additionally, this version includes the controversial government-run insurance program, which would be created to compete with private insurance.

Democrats continued to expand their efforts on health care reform. A collaboration of various groups announced a national ad campaign featuring Harry and Louise touting health care reform. A rally featuring former Health and Human Services secretary candidate Tom Daschle was held on Capitol Hill, as supporters chanted "Yes we can," to the question of whether health care reform should be passed.

The Democratic National Committee is targeting the conservative wing of the party wary about higher costs to businesses in the new plan. The committee launched a television advertisement Wednesday encouraging them to pass Obama's health care plan swiftly.

"I think it's a waste of money," Reid said when asked about the ads. Asked to elaborate, he said, "It's a waste of money to have Democrats running ads against Democrats."

Afterwards Reid's spokesman said the senator actually has "no problem" with the DNC ads.

"Senator Reid was led to believe by the question posed to him that the DNC was attacking members of his caucus," said Rodell Mollineau, Reid's communications director. "In fact, the DNC is running non-specific call to action ads in states with both Democratic and Republican Senators, an effort he has no problem with."

And in a move likely to appease those Blue Dog Democrats, Pelosi said today House Democrats are going to take another look at costs to small business owners.

The House bill includes a proposal for a so-called health benefit advisory committee, which would include 25 people appointed by the president and the surgeon general to determine benefit eligibility.

"The decisions, right now, are being made by insurance companies. And I think a whole lot of people out there are having bad experiences because they know that recommendations are coming from people who have a profit motive," the president said in an interview with ABC News' Dr. Tim Johnson Wednesday. "If I've got a panel of doctors and experts whose only motivation is making sure that we get the most bang for the buck in our health care, I think that's a situation that most Americans would feel pretty good about."

As part of a comprehensive reform and to cut costs over the long term, the president argues that more emphasis needs to be put on luring more doctors into family medicine practices.

"Those people who don't have access to primary care physicians are going to the emergency room where we're giving them the most expensive care, and all of us are subsidizing that," Obama said. "I want to make sure that in the final bill that I sign there are strong incentives to help primary care physicians."

The president said the program to change primary care is unlikely to start until 2013. That may be five years away, but Obama wants lawmakers to "buck up" and move quickly with legislation in Congress.

"We can do what we've done for so long and defer tough decisions for another day -- or we can step up and meet our responsibilities. In other words, we can lead," Obama said in a speech Wednesday.

But he has not indicated which Democratic plan he prefers.

"Both proposals will take what's best about our system today and make it the basis of our system tomorrow," he said.

If lawmakers succeed in passing the bills in the House and Senate this summer, the tougher challenge will come in the fall, when they would try to resolve differences between the two versions of the bill. Congressional Democrats are deeply divided on key details, including whether to create a new government-run health insurance program and how to pay for it all.

Republican Reservations

Many GOP leaders have yet to get on board the plan. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said today that the Democrats' approach to health care is simply wrong.

The bill approved by the Senate health panel has a public health insurance option and mandates for employers and individuals. Approved along strict party lines, it does not deal with the controversial question of financing health care reform, the details of which are being negotiated more slowly by the Senate Finance Committee.

Enzi, the ranking Republican on the health committee, said the committee should scrap the bill and start over to agree to a bipartisan measure that could gain support from Republicans. Anything less, he said, would ultimately be rejected by the country. Republicans have also decried an expansion of Medicaid envisioned by Democrats. They say the real financial brunt of such an expansion would fall on the states, which share the cost.

"Based on everything the president has promised and said he wanted in a health care reform bill, I don't see how he could ever sign this bill," Enzi said. "The HELP Democrats' plan makes a mockery of the president's promises."

Grassley told ABC News' Jake Tapper he hopes the proposal to pay for health care reform that comes out of his panel will be bipartisan.

"I would think the Democrats would want it to be a bipartisan bill, I would think the president would." said Grassley, R-Iowa. "I want to make sure that public isn't skeptical about what we're doing, and I think they're gonna be very skeptical if you pass something with just Democrat votes."

Echoing remarks made by some of his GOP colleagues, Grassley said a public option plan would "be very harmful" to the country, especially rural areas.

"What's eventually going to be bad about a government-run health insurance program is that the government's gonna be setting rates," he told ABC News. "And when you set rates like we have a record of doing in Medicare, 80 percent of what costs are, you're going to very much limit health care through the unavailability of health care professionals."

It's not just Republican opposition that Obama and Democrats have to worry about. The White House had hoped for support from a broad coalition of health industry groups. But that coalition is falling apart, in part due to a proposal to hit insurance companies with a new tax. Even some fiscally conservative Senate Blue Dog Democrats have reservations about the sleuth of new taxes.

"The tax increases on small businesses and upper income people is worrisome because you don't want to hurt job creation at a time like this," said Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. "It's actually an eight percent tax on small business jobs, which is worrisome."

Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., who chairs the Blue Dogs' health care task force, said he wants to see significant changes to protect small businesses and rural providers and contain costs before he and his colleagues could vote for it.

"We cannot support the current bill," he said.

To help pay for the health care plan, ABC News has learned Senate Democrats are considering new taxes on health insurance and pharmaceutical companies. The new taxes could bring in more than $100 billion, but were hotly opposed by the health industry.

Senate Democrats are also considering a new tax on soft drinks of 3 to 10 cents per can and a 1.5 percent increase in capital gains and dividends taxes.

The House bill proposes slapping a new surtax of up to 5.4 percent on those with incomes of more than $400,000 a year to help pay for the plan.

ABC News' Jake Tapper contributed to this report.

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