Baucus advances without public option

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus said Wednesday the time has come to advance healthcare reform — with or without Republican support — and announced his intention to move legislation through his panel in the next two weeks.

For months Baucus (D-Mont.) has kept the Senate at a standstill on President Barack Obama’s signature priority, frustrating Democratic colleagues and liberal interest groups with his attempts to forge a bipartisan compromise with three Republicans behind closed doors.

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But hours before Obama was set to lay out his vision for healthcare reform before a joint session of Congress, Baucus said he couldn’t wait any longer; he will introduce his legislation next week and hold a committee markup during the week of Sept. 21.

His bill will not include a government-run insurance option to compete with the private sector because “a public option cannot pass the Senate,” Baucus said.

The public option is a core provision for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and liberal members, and was approved by three House panels and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Baucus met with Democratic members of his panel Wednesday morning to gauge their support for a proposal he originally floated to the bipartisan “Gang of Six” negotiating group Sunday and to assure Democrats that he’s ready to move on.

“The time has come for action, and we will act,” Baucus told reporters.

“This is our moment. We have spent many weeks and months on this and now is the time to move forward,” Baucus said, emphasizing that the schedule he outlined is “firm.”

Baucus has been attempting to forge a bipartisan deal with committee ranking Republican Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Democratic Sens. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.) and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

The Gang of Six will meet again Thursday, a sign that it may not want to give up just yet. Conrad said Baucus’s bill would be fully scored by the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation when it is released next week.

As initially proposed, the bill outlines sweeping health insurance market reforms designed to make coverage more available, sets up state-based exchanges through which individuals and small-business employees could purchase insurance, 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.

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It 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.

Baucus faces skepticism within his own ranks. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has been critical of the bipartisan negotiations all along, emerged from Wednesday’s meeting with harsh words for Baucus’s proposals.

“We don’t have something which I consider acceptable,” Rockefeller said. “As of this moment, the proposal is inadequate.”

Rockefeller rejected a compromise proposal, put forth by Conrad and embraced by Baucus, to establish federally chartered, not-for-profit, member-owned healthcare cooperatives to compete with private insurers.

Nevertheless, Baucus predicted that committee Democrats would support his bill. “I think they will, because they know the importance of healthcare reform,” he said. Baucus also indicated that he expects Democrats to amend the bill during the markup.

Snowe has suggested establishing a “trigger” for the public option, under which the program would only kick in if private insurers fail to cover the uninsured under reform.

Baucus said that proposal has never come up during either the bipartisan talks or his meetings with committee Democrats.

After meeting with the Gang of Six on Tuesday, Baucus asked the senators to submit requests for changes to his proposal by Wednesday morning. All three Republicans complied with that request, he said, setting up an afternoon meeting.

Baucus said he informed Grassley on Wednesday morning of his plans to move toward a committee markup with or without GOP support. “He understands,” Baucus said.