Saturday, September 05, 2009

Finance Committee Chairman Wants Accord From Negotiators on Health Care

'Gang of 6' Urged to Act Now On Health - Negotiators Pressed To Offer Proposal Before Obama Does

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee [Max Baucus] pressured his team of health-care negotiators on Friday to agree to a bipartisan overhaul plan before President Obama addresses Congress next week, warning that otherwise he will put forward his own proposal.

Up to a dozen Senate Democrats are thought to oppose to some degree the federal insurance proposal -- the "public option" -- and it remains unclear how many would embrace a fallback measure that the White House is contemplating. Every Democrat who backs away means another Republican vote the White House would need to win.

The mood of the Senate is making liberal Democrats, particularly those in the House, uneasy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued on Thursday an adamant defense of a "vigorous public option." Other House leaders noted that cutting the cost of the overall package, which several negotiators have said they want to do, will probably require cutting the federal subsidies to help people comply with a new mandate to buy health insurance -- an idea both parties have embraced.

"We're asking every citizen to take some responsibility for their own health care. But you can't reasonably ask somebody to do something that's totally beyond their financial means," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the House leadership. "That's the trade-off."

But in recent days, the White House has aggressively pursued a deal with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a member of the Gang of Six. She favors a slimmed-down bill that would take effect more slowly and would create a public insurance plan only if private insurance companies do not offer better coverage at lower rates. Under Snowe's "safety-net option," aides said, private insurance companies would be asked to develop plans affordable to 95 percent of the population in a given state or region.

In areas where private firms do not comply by 2013 -- when people are scheduled to begin entering a new federal insurance exchange -- a nonprofit insurance plan sponsored by the government would be added to the list of private options.

Senior Senate aides said Baucus had not yet decided whether to include Snowe's provision in his proposal or to offer a public-option alternative -- a network of nonprofit cooperatives -- which the group already endorsed.

Some Democrats are urging Obama to cease courting Republicans and to attempt to pass a Senate bill solely with Democratic votes, to preserve the public option in its full form. But that would require Democrats in the Senate to use a legislative maneuver known as reconciliation. A reconciliation measure cannot be filibustered, so the Senate could approve health reform with 51 votes, rather than the 60 usually necessary to pass legislation in the chamber.

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