Waxman: ‘We’re going to make it’

Democrats sense new momentum on healthcare reform that had eluded them all summer, with leaders in both chambers optimistic the year will end with landmark legislation on President Barack Obama’s desk.

Even with serious tension within the majority party, leaders in the House and Senate say they have never been closer to their goal of expanding health insurance coverage to millions of Americans. Both chambers are nearing completion of  committee work and ready to begin floor debates in the coming weeks.

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“I’m encouraged that we’re as far along as we have come and I think we’re going to make it,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and sponsor of one of five bills moving through Congress.

Competing with the optimism is the widening divide between centrists and liberals that has slowed progress all along. The chief sticking point, whether to include a government-run health insurance option, remains unresolved.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and his centrist allies received a major boost Wednesday when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) delivered an analysis of his legislation, which does not include the public option.

“I feel very good about it,” said Baucus in regard to the CBO reporting that his bill would cost $829 billion, reduce the deficit by $81 billion over 10 years and expand coverage to 94 percent of Americans.

Senate liberals who support the public option acknowledge the wind is behind Baucus.

“It gives the Baucus bill an advantage in certain areas and it gives health reform in general a boost,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who helped craft the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee  bill, which includes the public option.

But House lawmakers say Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are responsible for the momentum.

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, which has passed one of the three House healthcare bills, said Obama’s speech before a joint session of Congress marked a turning point.

He also said that Pelosi has held dozens of meetings to assuage the concerns of liberal and centrist Democratic colleagues. Miller, one of Pelosi’s top lieutenants, said the Speaker held seven healthcare meetings on Wednesday alone.

Waxman said that he noticed the reservations of centrists softened immediately after Obama addressed Congress last month.

Pelosi on Thursday dismissed the idea that the favorable cost analysis is a game-changer, saying Baucus’s bill comes off the “backs of the middle class.” In a move that suggests she may feel pressure to defend the public option, Pelosi on Thursday submitted three House bills to the CBO for a cost analysis.

The Senate Finance Committee is scheduled to hold a final vote on its legislation Tuesday and then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has the difficult task of merging the bill with the one the HELP Committee approved in July. That process could take one or two weeks.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the vice chairman of the Democratic Conference and a member of the Finance panel who supports the public option, said Reid should take as much time as he needs.

“It’s a difficult process,” Schumer said. “Better to do it right than to do it so fast that you make a mistake.”

Senators say they expect the floor debate to take two to three weeks. With that debate likely to begin in late October, it would be very difficult for the two chambers to pass bills, hold a conference and then send Obama a final product by Thanksgiving, as some administration officials have hoped.

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Christmas may be a more reasonable deadline.

While Republicans are expected to vote against the Senate healthcare bill en masse, one is giving it a serious look after the favorable CBO score.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), the Republican whom Democrats consider most likely to support their healthcare package, praised the cost of the Baucus bill and said the bill that comes to the Senate floor should hew to it closely.

“The numbers are promising,” she said. “This bill is going to be merged with the HELP bill and hopefully it’s going to hew very closely with the Finance bill.”

Snowe said that she would meet with the CBO director to review his agency’s analysis.

But pressure for that one GOP vote will come up against Senate liberals, who say Reid must include the public option in the bill before he brings it to the floor. They say it would be very difficult to add it with an amendment that would require 60 votes.

Thirty Senate Democrats have signed a letter penned by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) calling on Reid to include a government plan in the final bill.

“Look, five committees have reported a bill out on healthcare. Four of them have a public option. One doesn’t. So you would think the weight would be on the side of having a public option in the bill — and that’s where it is,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the HELP panel.

The HELP bill provides higher health insurance subsidies to more low- and middle-income people, making it more expensive. The Finance Committee has less stringent penalties for individuals who fail to buy health insurance.

The HELP bill would also create a mandate for all but the smallest companies to provide health insurance for their employees. The Finance Committee left out this requirement in the face of strong opposition from business groups.

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who will be the lead voice for the HELP Committee bill, bristled at the notion that Baucus would have the upper hand going into the negotiation.

“You got to get the votes and there are a lot things in our bill that people feel very strongly about,” said Dodd. “This isn’t all about scoring. I know people want to make it that, but it’s about health reform.”

Dodd said the CBO cost estimate would give Baucus momentum “with some people, but it’s not just the bottom line number, but what you’re doing.”