Chamber praises Baucus, jabs at House health bill

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce praised Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and his band of bipartisan negotiators for their efforts to craft a deal on healthcare reform, doing so in a letter Monday that is sharply critical of his House counterparts.

The big-business group, which has been highly critical of a number of the key components of the healthcare reform platform espoused by President Obama and most congressional Democrats, penned the letter to Baucus, Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and the other members of the committee to urge them to keep working for a deal.

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The letter, however, is as much a swipe at House Democrats as it is an offer of support for Baucus and Grassley's months-long effort to hammer out an agreement on legislation that can attract more than 60 votes in the Senate.

The absence of a bipartisan package from the Finance Committee will trigger intense anti-healthcare-reform jockeying during the upcoming recess, the letter strongly hints.

"The Chamber also believes that it is important for the [Finance] Committee to act promptly, preferably before the August recess, to approve a bipartisan bill consistent with these principles, as it is now apparent that we will be forced to oppose the legislation being considered by the House. The business community vitally needs better policy alternatives to be proposed by Congress," the letter says.

"The Chamber applauds your commitment to develop a comprehensive plan that garners bipartisan support in the United States Senate. Restructuring one-sixth of the U.S. economy is too important to pursue on a one-party basis," says the letter, signed by Bruce Josten, the Chamber's chief lobbyist.

"Unfortunately, the U.S. House has done just that. Some fear that broad-scale public support for healthcare reform will wane over the August recess because the only detailed legislative proposal that has been adopted is the product being considered in the House. The House proposal will not generate widespread public support and moves in the wrong direction."

The threat of a wide-scale war between business and healthcare interest groups against healthcare reform is far from idle. Most special interests have not used heavy artillery as healthcare reform has advanced this year — a stark contrast to previous efforts in the 1990s and earlier — as they seek to influence the legislation. Indeed, drug companies, hospitals and other sectors have made explicit cost-cutting pledges to Baucus and Obama.

The business community has long thought that any bill born of Baucus's committee would be the one they most likely could support. If Baucus fails to achieve a bipartisan deal or if Democrats signal they will reject what he presents, the Chamber and other interest groups will be significantly less inclined to restrain campaigns to stop legislation from moving forward.

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In its letter, the Chamber zeroes in on plans by House Democrats — backed up by Obama and Democrats on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — to create a government-run "public option" insurance plan as part of reform. Baucus and his bipartisan group are eyeing an alternative to a true public option that likely would take the form of nonprofit healthcare cooperatives owned by their members.

"We do not believe that the government plan will be a fair competitor," says the letter, which also contends that the House bill does too little to reduce healthcare spending and would place an undue burden on companies by mandating that most offer health benefits.

Big business's support for Baucus's attempts at dealmaking with Republicans stands in stark contrast to the posture of liberal Democrats toward the process.

During an appearance on a radio show hosted by liberal commentator Bill Press, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) suggested that Baucus was not making progress and that he should give up talking with Republicans.

"What concerns me about what's happened in the Senate Finance Committee is that they've had a whole lot of time to work these things out, and just don't seem to be able to break the impasse," said Van Hollen, who is chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and assistant to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "At some point they're going to have to pull the plug on that process."

Michael O'Brien contributed to this report.