Thursday, August 6, 2009

Senators Closer To Health Package

Bipartisan Talks On Reform Move Toward Center

From the Washington Post

Senate negotiators are inching toward bipartisan agreement on a health-care plan that seeks middle ground on some of the thorniest issues facing Congress, offering the fragile outlines of a legislative consensus even as the political battle over reform intensifies outside Washington.

The emerging Finance Committee bill would shave about $100 billion off the projected trillion-dollar cost of the legislation over the next decade and eventually provide coverage to 94 percent of Americans, according to participants in the talks. It would expand Medicaid, crack down on insurers, abandon the government insurance option that President Obama is seeking and, for the first time, tax health-care benefits under the most generous plans. Backers say the bill would also offer the only concrete plan before Congress for reining in the skyrocketing cost of federal health programs over the long term.

Three Democrats and three Republicans from the Senate Finance Committee will brief Obama on Thursday about the progress of their sometimes arduous talks, which are now set to extend through the August recess. The negotiators are holding the details close as they continue to debate key issues, and it could be a challenge for them to meet the Sept. 15 deadline set by the committee's chairman, Max Baucus (D-Mont.), for a deal.

Even if the partnership does not result in legislation, Democratic leaders are already contemplating ways to preserve much of what it produces as they look to unite their party and pick up Republican votes when the health-care debate moves to the Senate floor in the fall. The Finance Committee coalition is seeking compromise on some of the most complex issues facing Congress, including how to compel employers to continue providing insurance to their workers; how to more fairly distribute government subsidies for coverage; and who and how many should be allowed to remain uninsured.

Negotiators are even crafting provisions that would limit their own authority over Medicare by empowering an independent commission to extract savings from the program.

Many of their ideas were previewed for the first time to Senate Democrats in a closed-door meeting Wednesday afternoon. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), a centrist who spent the early part of the day with Obama at a rally in Elkhart, Ind., before hearing the briefing, said he supports reform but is worried about how it will be financed. He backs the Finance Committee's proposal to tax insurance providers and businesses, preferring that approach to taxing the wealthy households that are targeted in a competing measure in the House.

Still, as the six senators continue their talks, the political debate over health-care reform has become increasingly polarized. Liberal Democrats are incensed that the Finance Committee has rejected a government-run health insurance plan in favor of a network of member-owned cooperatives -- a needless concession, they believe, given the Democrats' 60-vote majority in the Senate. Meanwhile, many Republicans view blocking health-care reform as a smart political strategy that will help their party draw a sharp line with congressional Democrats in the 2010 elections.

Democrats also suspect that GOP lawmakers are wary about supporting reform at the risk of attracting conservative primary opponents. One potential target: Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the lead Republican health-care negotiator, who will run for reelection next year.

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