No Republican support for Senate health plan

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) pushes on with hope but no guarantee of bipartisan support down the line.

September 16, 2009|Janet Hook and Peter Nicholas

WASHINGTON AND PITTSBURGH — Senate Democrats' most concerted quest for a bipartisan compromise on healthcare collapsed Tuesday as finance committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) announced he would move ahead with his long-delayed proposals without any guarantee of Republican support.

Baucus also took a blow from his own party's left, as a senior Senate Democrat declared that too many concessions had been made and that he would not support the emerging bill because it did not include a public insurance option.

"I cannot agree with [Baucus] on this bill," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), a senior finance committee member who has been briefed on the proposal. "There is no way, in its present form, that I will vote for it."

The Baucus plan, which scales back President Obama's ambitious proposals both in scope and cost, is considered a likely template for the measure that will ultimately clear the Senate. It has been designed to allay the concerns of moderate Blue Dog Democrats as well as Republicans.

After the negotiations broke down, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the finance committee, accused Senate Democratic leaders of lacking a commitment to bipartisanship.

"I'm disappointed because it looks like we're being pushed aside by the Democratic leadership so the Senate can move forward on a bill that, up to this point, does not meet the shared goals for affordable, accessible health coverage that we set forth when this process began," said Grassley in a written statement.

Congressional Democrats and the White House had been doubting Grassley's commitment to negotiations after he sent a fundraising letter last month pledging to defeat "Obamacare."

The Finance Committee is scheduled to begin voting on its provisions next week. Baucus said he hoped that by the time the panel finishes amending and debating the bill, the measure will have gained some Republican backing.

But a last-minute session with his GOP counterparts -- the latest in a months-long string of such negotiations -- broke up late Tuesday with no commitment of Republican support.

At the same time, the White House was ramping up pressure on the Senate to act -- even if that meant scaling back Obama's expectations of the legislation.

David Axelrod, Obama's senior political advisor, met Tuesday with Senate Democrats to underscore the political risks of failing to revamp the healthcare system. According to Baucus, he cited polls showing public demand for changes -- and increasing support as people learn details of what Democrats are trying to do.

Rockefeller said after the meeting with Axelrod that he would find it "very distressing" if the White House reduced its strategy to "just a question of passing something so you can say you did healthcare reform."

To amplify his message outside Washington, Obama is scheduled to do five television interviews on Sunday -- with ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and Univision -- to promote his healthcare initiative. He will also appear on David Letterman's show Monday.

The Baucus version of a healthcare overhaul would significantly scale back the cost and scope of legislation approved by two House committees and another in the Senate. And it would shun the public option preferred by many Democrats.

Baucus was still revising key provisions of the bill Tuesday, including curbs on funding for abortion and on benefits for illegal immigrants. But the broad outlines were clear.

Like the version pending in the House, the Baucus proposal would require all individuals to have health insurance, make Medicaid available to more poor people, provide subsidies to help middle- and lower-income people afford private coverage, and set up marketplaces for individuals and small businesses to buy insurance at competitive rates.

But the Baucus bill costs less than $880 billion over 10 years, compared with the $1-trillion measure in the House.

The cost-cutting changes Baucus made to win favor with deficit hawks in the Senate have fueled fresh complaints from liberals such as Rockefeller and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) who worry that, in the absence of a public option, there is no guarantee that affordable insurance will be available to people of modest means who do not qualify for subsidies.

At the same time, however, some of the most fervent supporters of the public option Tuesday signaled a willingness to compromise, and the president himself continued to show flexibility as he barnstormed for action.

Bill Samuel, director of government affairs for the AFL-CIO, said in an interview that the public option remained the preferred solution. But he also said, "If people bring forward an idea that they can credibly argue achieves the same results -- breaking the stranglehold of insurance companies -- we'll look at it."

Obama addressed an AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh on Tuesday and reiterated his support for the public option. But he continued to avoid making it nonnegotiable.

Setting up a government-run plan to compete with private health insurers and act as a brake on rising premiums is a good idea, Obama said, one that would "offer Americans more choices, and promote real competition, and put pressure on private insurers to make their policies affordable and treat their customers better."

Rallying the union audience, Obama described the healthcare system as a blight on the nation. He described it as "broken" and prone to "sucking up all the money."

"How many more workers have to lose their coverage?" he asked. "How many more families have to go into the red for a sick loved one? How much longer are we going to have to wait?

"It can't wait," he said.


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