Dems commit to meeting healthcare deadline

Democratic leaders in both chambers insist they will have healthcare legislation passed by the August recess, despite acknowledging significant obstacles ahead regarding how to pay for the plan.

“I am committed to doing this all month of July and the first of August,” before the Senate departs for the recess, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, even as senators struggled to agree on tax increases to finance the bill.

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House Democrats are set to unveil their plans to pay for healthcare reform, including the tax increases, on Friday, said Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), which would present the lower chamber with a good chance of passing legislation by its July 31 deadline.

But Waxman and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) both griped about the cost estimates they were receiving from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO).

The White House also indicated that healthcare reform is on track. “From our perspective, what we see is constructive progress toward what we understand is something that's very complicated,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

This optimism stood in sharp contrast to the considerable challenges they face in meeting the promise made by President Obama and congressional leaders that the $1 trillion-plus healthcare reform legislation will not add to the budget deficit over the next 10 years.

Senate Finance Committee members entered their second day of meetings aimed at identifying ways to raise more than $300 billion in tax revenue that would not include a tax on workplace health benefits. The panel’s chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), has favored that proposal all year, but as opposition from rank-and-file Democrats mounted, Reid this week sent Baucus back to the drawing board.

Democratic and Republican Finance Committee members emerged from one meeting with widely different views on what taxes — if any — to raise and no comments about when they would come to terms.

Baucus said senators were “a lot closer than we’ve been” but acknowledged, “I know I’ve been saying that constantly” as a bipartisan deal on the entire reform package continues to elude him.

Senators are looking at taxes that range from an upper-income “surtax” to hikes in Medicare payroll taxes to new levies on sugary drinks and alcohol.

“The meeting is encouraging because there are lots of alternatives,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who expressed serious reservations about taxing health benefits.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said even though everything’s on the table, not everything is being taken seriously. “You’ve got to look at all the options. Some just aren’t real,” he said, declining to be more specific.

But the sheer length of what Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) called a “laundry list of ways to raise money” presented challenges to committee members.

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“It’s totally doable. There’s plenty of sources,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has proposed financing the healthcare bill with an increase in income taxes on high-income earners, a notion with limited support on the committee.

Republicans, meanwhile, have not even agreed to the concept of raising taxes, said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah.). “There are a whole bunch of revenue options that they’ve listed. There are no good options as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

“Our side has tremendous angst, and I personally have lots of angst, on the so-called tax increases that they want to talk about,” said Hatch, who suggested the entire healthcare reform process ought to be rethought.

The House is focused on taxes targeting higher-income workers and will not tax health benefits, Pelosi asserted. But Pelosi and Waxman indicated they were having problems of their own finding ways to pay for healthcare reform.

“That's part of what we are waiting for — the pay-fors and then the CBO scoring after that as to what the bill will cost,” Pelosi said.

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