Dems ready to amend Baucus's health bill


Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) plans to introduce his proposal for healthcare reform on Wednesday with a committee mark up to begin the following Tuesday. Based on the comments by several committee Democrats after a meeting Monday evening, that mark up could be a lengthy one.

Baucus acknowledged that the mark-up could prove a busy one but predicted that Democrats would support the package he plans to unveil Wednesday without major changes.

“I don’t see any deal-breaker amendments,” Baucus said. “Put it this way: It’s unlikely that any amendments, which basically change the framework, will be accepted.”

Near the top of the list for the panel’s Democrats is worry that health insurance subsidies will not be sufficiently generous nor available to enough people despite the fact that the bill would legally require most people to obtain coverage. Beyond premiums, some Democrats are concerned that Baucus’s proposal would not do enough to protect middle-class families from high healthcare expenses.

"It's very clear, at this point in the debate, the flashpoint is all about affordability,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “I personally think there’s a lot of heavy lifting left to do on the affordability issue.”

The healthcare bills already approved by three House committees and another Senate committee offer more generous subsidies – but at a higher cost to taxpayers.

“We’re doing our very best to make an insurance requirement as affordable as we possibly can, recognizing that we’re trying to get this bill under $900 billion total,” said Baucus, who has been courting Republican support for his measure in an attempt to guarantee that a healthcare bill can achieve the 60 votes or more needed to avoid a Senate filibuster.

“I’m going to work even harder to address any legitimate affordability concerns. I knew they were there,” Baucus said.

Baucus should expect to see many amendments from Democratic members of the committee, said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

“There will undoubtedly be amendments in the committee process – and probably a lot of them,” Kerry said. “There’ll be some big fights over different components of this.”

Asked whether he could vote in favor of Baucus’s draft proposal that senators discussed in their meeting Monday evening, Kerry said: “I’m glad I don’t have to answer that because I know it’s not going to be the bill that we’re going to vote on because we are going to amend, we are going to have a tug-of-war still.”

Nevertheless, Kerry sounded an upbeat note about the prospects of healthcare reform passing the Senate. “Not everybody is going to like every aspect of it in the Senate but in the end I believe we will get something that addresses the needs and concerns of the American people.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) also expressed confidence the Senate will come together on a bill. “I’m very optimistic that we’re going to be able to pass a bill that’ll get 60 votes,” he said.

President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress last week reassured Nelson that the large population of Medicare beneficiaries in his state would not be harmed by the legislation, he said.

Obama emphasized that point at a private meeting with centrist Democratic senators last week, according to Nelson. “I think that they’re going to address these concerns that I have not to take away things that senior citizens already have,” he said.

In addition to concerns about the subsidies and other issues, liberals are also upset that Baucus decided to omit a government-run public option insurance program from his bill, instead opting to embrace a proposal by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) to create not-for-profit healthcare cooperatives that would compete with private insurers. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) has been especially skeptical of this attempt to compromise with Republicans and centrist Democrats who oppose the public option.

Baucus has been negotiating since June with the “gang of six” Finance Committee senators, which includes Conrad, ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), and Republican Sens. Mike Enzi (Wyo.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).

In the end, Baucus said, some Republicans will support healthcare legislation in the Senate this year – but he stopped short of predicting an agreement with Grassley, Enzi or Snowe prior to the mark up.

“I think there will be Republicans. I’m not saying it’s going to be on the mark; I’m saying that, by the time we complete mark-up, there’ll be Republicans that vote for it,” Baucus said.