Critics Attacked Senate Health Bill Before Its Unveiling

By and | September 16, 2009

Critics in both parties assailed the Senate Finance Committee’s healthcare reform plan Tuesday, the day before the panel publishes a long-awaited bill that could form the basis for compromise in Congress.

Democratic Senator John Rockefeller, a Finance panel member and strong backer of a government-run “public” option that is not included in the bill, said he could not support the measure unless there are significant changes.

“There is no way in its present form that I will vote for it,” he said of the Senate Finance bill, the product of months of negotiation between three Democrats and three Republicans on the panel — the so-called “Gang of Six.”

Rockefeller is the first Senate Democrat to publicly oppose the Senate Finance proposals.

Republican Charles Grassley, one of the panel negotiators, said in a statement late Tuesday he still had concerns with provisions in the bill and he criticized Senate Democratic leaders for setting artificial deadlines.

“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,” Grassley said.

Grassley said he was willing to stay at the negotiating table to keep working on the bill, which some lawmakers hope will form the backbone of a congressional compromise on President Barack Obama’s top domestic priority.

The bill is scheduled to be made public Wednesday even though no Republicans have yet signed on to support it, and the full committee will vote on it next week.

The proposal from the panel’s chairman, Max Baucus, does not include a government-run “public” insurance option, opting instead for non-profit cooperatives as a way to increase competition for insurance companies.

While Obama backs a government-run option, he has signaled it is not essential to help meet his goal of increasing competition, lowering costs and expanding coverage to most of the 46 million Americans who currently lack health insurance.

Democrats in the House pushed for a government-run healthcare option during a meeting with White House senior adviser David Axelrod.

‘NO REFORM WITHOUT PUBLIC OPTION’

“The caucus was saying there will be no healthcare reform out of this caucus without a public option,” Democrat Lynn Woolsey told reporters.

She said Axelrod reiterated Obama’s preference for a government-run plan, which Republicans and some moderate Democratic critics say would hurt insurance companies and give government too broad a role.

“It was nice to hear again that the administration and the president support a public option as a choice,” Woolsey said.

Three House committees and one Senate committee have finished work on healthcare bills that include a public option, leaving the Senate Finance panel as the final hurdle before each chamber takes up the issue.

The clashes over the government-run plan illustrate Obama’s difficulty as he tries to fashion a coalition to pass a major overhaul of the $2.5 trillion healthcare industry at a cost of $900 billion over 10 years — without increasing the deficit.

Each time he reaches out to Republicans or conservatives, Obama and his allies in Congress anger liberal Democrats who have the votes to kill any measure in the House.

But in the Senate, support from moderate Democrats and perhaps even some Republicans will be needed to reach the 60 votes necessary to clear procedural hurdles.

Rockefeller, of West Virginia, said he wanted the public option in the plan and did not like the tax on high-cost healthcare plans, which he said would hurt coal miners who work in a high-risk environment and have expensive health plans.

He said he also had problems with some of the bill’s changes to the children’s health insurance program and Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor.

Democrats hold a 13-10 majority on the Senate Finance Committee. Unless they gain Republican support, Rockefeller’s desertion would leave Democrats with a 12-11 majority and give Baucus little room for error to get the bill through.

Baucus says he will move ahead with the bill even without any Republican support. He has negotiated for months with Republicans Grassley, Olympia Snowe and Mike Enzi.

Enzi and Grassley were critical of Obama’s plans during the congressional recess in August, dimming hopes they would be included in the compromise.

Baucus said he still hoped for Republican support when the committee begins to vote on the bill’s provisions next week.

“What really counts and what I expect is Republican support for the bill when it is reported out of committee,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan and Thomas Ferraro; Editing by John O’Callaghan and Todd Eastham)

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