Reid backs Baucus, expects health bill by recess

With healthcare reform stumbling in both chambers, Senate leaders laid the ground for political battle during the August recess.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reiterated his party’s case for healthcare, refusing to get drawn into a description of the Finance Committee talks and sidestepping a question about whether he favors a public option.

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The role of a public health insurance plan is considered one of the top sticking points on Capitol Hill. President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to the idea on Tuesday in remarks to the AARP, but Finance Committee members are torn about whether to include the idea.

Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has been under increasing scrutiny since the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee already passed a rival bill several weeks ago. Asked Tuesday whether a bill would be produced this week, Baucus said “I hope so” without elaborating.

Reid stepped out to defend Baucus at a mid-afternoon press conference, but avoided details. Asked if he was confident that a bill will reach the Senate floor by the time the recess begins on Aug. 7, Reid simply said, "Yes."

Pushing back against Republican criticism, Reid also reiterated Democrats’ vow to pass a health reform plan that is fully funded.

“Any plan that passes the Senate will be fully paid for,” Reid said. “When all of the numbers are crunched, the number on the bottom line will be zero … We are long overdue for changes in our healthcare system. The biggest cost to the American public is inaction.”

Meanwhile, GOP leaders continued their public-relations onslaught against the Democratic health agenda, claiming Obama’s ideas would force Americans to lose their current healthcare and bankrupt the system.

Top Republicans also said they aren’t afraid of a voter backlash if healthcare dies in Congress because they believe the public will understand the details.

“I would be 100 percent certain there would be a backlash if we rushed something through,” said Senate Republican Conference President Lamar Alexander. “We’re doing exactly the right thing by going home in August and talking to our constituents and telling them how this will affect their healthcare.”

Reid also said Tuesday that the Supreme Court confirmation vote on Sonia Sotomayor will go forward next week as planned. Republicans are insisting that all of their members be allowed to speak for one hour each, he said, meaning at least 40 hours would be needed. That would put a vote on the nomination around midweek, with senators likely leaving town on Thursday night.