Pelosi criticizes Baucus health bill

Speaker Nancy Pelosi is not among those praising Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) for bringing his healthcare bill in well under President Barack Obama’s $900 billion limit.

Pelosi (D-Calif.), an advocate of the government-run health insurance option left out of the Senate Finance Committee chairman’s bill, criticized the means by which Baucus kept costs down.

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“The savings come off the backs of the middle class,” Pelosi told a closed-door caucus meeting. “This is why we need a strong public option going into conference with the Senate.”

The remark, confirmed by several of those in attendance, demonstrated that Pelosi is increasingly siding with the liberal members of her caucus on strategy.

Leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have consistently pushed the bill to the left in order to improve the bargaining position it will have in conference with the more centrist Senate when it hammers out a final version.

That strategy has infuriated centrists, particularly Blue Dog Democrats, who don’t want to take politically risky votes on provisions likely to be bargained away in the final hours. They feel Pelosi and other leaders have ignored their suggestions.

“This isn’t about achieving bargaining power in conference,” said Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), a Blue Dog leader. “We should be coming together to see what can be achieved.”

Herseth Sandlin and the Blue Dogs are generally more supportive of Baucus’s Senate Finance Committee bill. And they think that Democratic leaders in both chambers, along with the White House, should “pre-conference” the bill, hammering out a version that can pass in both chambers.

Many centrist Democrats in the House had pushed for the chamber to wait for the Senate to come up with a bill, or even wait for the final Senate bill before voting on a final House measure. But they increasingly recognize that Pelosi isn’t giving ground.

“There are some members who will not support the House plan because they don’t want to vote on something that can’t become law,” said Blue Dog Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.). “The Speaker of the House does not have an inclination that the Senate should cut the first draft.”

While Pelosi doesn’t like Baucus’s version, it won applause for reducing the deficit over 10 years. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has said the House version would increase the deficit by more than $200 billion. Leaders have told House members they’ve brought down the cost, but haven’t detailed how.

One day after the Baucus score came back, House leaders sent a healthcare bill to the CBO that included the liberal version of the public option. In addition, Pelosi submitted two public option amendments that represented potential compromises with centrists. Both would allow the government to negotiate rates with providers, an idea that has more support among centrists than the liberal version that sets rates based on Medicare rates plus 5 percent.

Pelosi sees support growing among her fellow Democrats for the liberals’ version of a public option. She told the caucus that the “robust” public option, as liberals call it, has 200 votes among Democrats. It will likely need 218 votes to pass.

While Senate Democrats say a public option won’t pass in their chamber, House Democrats have rejected Baucus’s tax on high-end insurance plans. The tax is opposed by at least 157 House Democrats, about 62 percent of them, and Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) on Thursday called it “dead as a doornail.”

Pelosi favors an income surtax on individuals making more than $500,000 and households with income of more than $1 million. The House plan also includes a $20 billion tax on medical devices. And Pelosi said Thursday that the House Ways and Means Committee is looking at a “windfall profits tax” on health insurance companies.