By J. Taylor Rushing - 08/25/09 12:33 PM EDT
In a conference call with reporters, the GOP Policy Committee chairman said Republicans generally support Sen. Chuck Grassley's (R-Iowa) suggestion that the Finance Committee abandon attempts at a comprehensive health reform bill this year and focus instead on smaller, slower steps. Grassley is the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which has been taking painstaking steps toward a bipartisan bill.
"I think that's the only way you end up with a bipartisan bill," said Thune. "To me, right now what's complicating this is that the philosophical divide is so deep ... There are Republicans who would vote for reform, insurance reform and elements that would demonstrate more incremental change that actually do bend the cost curve down instead of bringing it up. There is some common ground that could be found there."
Republicans' fear, however, is that such an effort could be sabotaged in House-Senate conference talks, Thune said. If the GOP signs on to a go-slow approach, he said, the party would press to ensure Democrats don't reintroduce more radical ideas during such later steps in the process.
Thune also signaled Tuesday that Republicans may push for cuts to Medicare Advantage. Medicare Advantage offers seniors a higher level of care than they would receive under normal coverage, but does it through their private insurance plans. It is also known as the "Part C" component of Medicare. Enrollment in the program has exploded in recent years, passing the 9 million mark last year. But critics have attacked the plan's administrative costs.
Thune distinguished Medicare Advantage from Medicare, saying that the GOP wouldn't support cuts to the original program but has "been open to looking [into] whether there are some savings that could be achieved" by way of cuts to the enhanced program, mostly because it is too expensive to spread into rural areas.
"Obviously the argument that's been made is that Medicare Advantage has been expensive," Thune said. "There has been some support by Republicans for finding some savings in Medicare Advantage, but remember, there would be some savings there but the kind of numbers that are being talked about in terms of what it would take to finance all of these healthcare proposals Democrats have put forward doesn't even scratch the surface. But it could be used if you're talking about finding savings to reform Medicare. There would be some Republican support for that."
Echoing comments made last week by Senate GOP Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, Thune said he cannot foresee any Republican votes in the Senate for any healthcare bill, although there could be some for a bill being crafted by Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Bob Bennett of Utah. The Wyden-Bennett bill aims to create a universal healthcare system financed both publicly and privately, and includes a requirement for individuals to obtain health coverage.
Thune said all other Democratic healthcare bills include a publicly funded insurance plan and therefore won't receive any Republican support. But the Wyden-Bennett bill may attract crossover support, Thune said, although he said several GOP senators who are co-sponsors of the bill have told him they may not support it in its final version.
"They are on there in hopes of being on something that would move the process forward but have concerns about a number of components about that bill," Thune said. "But that would be something that would at least have Republican co-sponsors on it that people could, I suppose, start to take a look at in terms of something they could support."
Thune also rejected Democratic claims that conservative critics who have appeared at congressional town halls this month are orchestrated by the Republican Party or special interests such as insurance companies.
"I'm sure there's a certain amount of that, but you can't manufacture the kinds of crowds, the kinds of intensity that we're seeing," he said. "This is very much organic. People are just very interested in the subject for obvious reasons: It's a personal issue, and there's a general distrust of the government running anything like the healthcare economy in this country."