Baucus presses for bipartisan approach

Baucus said he is eager to create momentum for his bipartisan approach on the even of Obama’s address to a joint session.

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“Frankly, that would be preferable and I made that clear, that a bipartisan effort will have more affect if we reach agreement to prior to the president's address,” Baucus said Tuesday after convening the first meeting of the bipartisan “gang of six” negotiators since the end of the August recess.

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee has been trying to reach a deal for months with panel ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.), and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

Baucus said if the group does not reach a deal by Wednesday afternoon, it would not spell the end of their talks. But he strongly stated they will not continue indefinitely.

He has instructed the six senators to present their recommendations for changes to the proposal by 10 a.m. Wednesday; the group will meet again that afternoon.

“It's possible we can reach agreement at some point during the day,” Baucus said. “I'm not saying it's definitely going to happen but it is possible.”

“Over the next week or so, the Finance Committee will move forward with healthcare reform legislation,” Baucus said, though he insisted he has not set a date for the committee to hold a mark up. Before the recess, Baucus indicated he wanted to negotiations to come to conclusion by Sept. 15.

Baucus said Republicans need to make up their minds on reform: “They're going to have to start fishing or cutting the bait pretty soon and I made that very clear to the group.”

Grassley and Enzi each made plain during the August recess that they had serious misgivings about aspects of the proposal under discussion all year. In particular, the Republicans are concerned about the $900 billion in new spending it would require and with the fees it would levy on healthcare businesses to help pay for it.

That’s led Democrats to look more seriously at moving ahead on a partisan bill or one that attracted only Snowe.

Baucus acknowledged the possibility that Republicans might be unwilling to strike a deal and hinted that he has contingency plans.

“If and when we reach the point [where] there's not a bipartisan agreement, then that's a judgment I'll have to make: That is, where do we go from there?” he said.

Baucus has rankled liberal Democrats by leaving a public option out of his proposal. Nevertheless, he roundly rejected the notion that the lack of a public option in his proposal posed any threat to its viability: “I don't think it endangers it at all, frankly.”

An 18-page summary of Baucus's proposal was given to members of the gang of six Sunday and was widely distributed around Washington by Tuesday.

The framework outlines sweeping health insurance market reforms designed to make coverage more available, provides tax credits for low- and middle-income individuals and those employed by small businesses, expands Medicaid eligibility, and would require most individuals to obtain some form of coverage. Medicare beneficiaries would receive a 50 percent discount on their medications during the so-called coverage gap in the program's prescription drug benefit.

Instead of a public option, the measure would establish federally chartered, not-for-profit, member-owned healthcare cooperatives as an alternative to traditional private insurers. The measure also does not include a mandate that employers offer health benefits though it would require companies to pay a fee to the government if they fail to do so.

The bill would require new federal spending of about $900 billion over 10 years, a few hundred billion dollars less than the other measures, partly because of less generous subsidies for insurance.

Baucus would fully pay for his measure, in part by levying an excise tax on health insurance companies when they sell high-cost insurance plans. Not-for-profit hospitals, drug companies, medical device manufacturers, health insurers and clinical laboratories would be assessed new fees. In addition, the proposal would raise money by limiting the tax advantages for health savings accounts and flexible spending