Finance work on healthcare begins with rhetoric, attacks

At long last, the Senate Finance Committee began marking up a bill Tuesday that would overhaul the U.S. healthcare system.

But little appeared to have changed. The opening statements delivered by 22 senators offered more of the same rhetoric that has characterized the healthcare reform debate for months.

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At press time, the panel had not reached the first of more than 500 amendments.

Republicans criticized committee Chairman Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) bill, labeling it a government takeover of healthcare. GOP senators warned of tax hikes, taxpayer funding of abortions and illegal immigrants gaming the system.

Democrats touted the bill as a key mechanism for extending healthcare coverage to tens of millions of people that would also bring down the growth in spending.

Liberals offered skepticism about whether Baucus’s measure goes far enough to help the middle class, and the specters of previous failed attempts dating from Teddy Roosevelt to Bill Clinton made appearances.

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who is being heavily courted by President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats, may prove the most important figure at the markup.

She echoed some Republican criticisms on Tuesday but also offered hints that she could still join Democrats on the bill. Notably, Snowe bucked her Republican colleagues by denying that Baucus’s bill would lead to a government takeover of healthcare.

“We are far from the finish line,” said Snowe, who has offered numerous amendments.

Whether Baucus’s bill makes it through committee and his approach survives being merged with a more liberal bill already approved by the Senate, Health, Education and Labor Committee will be determined more by whether Democrats are able to come together than on how strongly the GOP will oppose them or even whether Snowe can be brought aboard.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) offered a warm appraisal of Baucus’s effort, but then proceeded to pick the bill apart. The lack of a public option, the size of the health insurance subsidies, provisions to transition kids out of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and into private insurance, the new taxes in the bill — none of it is good enough, said Rockefeller, who last week warned he would not vote for the first draft of the Baucus bill.

“I do have some serious concerns with this bill and I intend to work in this markup to improve upon these efforts,” Rockefeller said. “It is my sincere hope that the addition of several important provisions addressing the key areas I have laid out here will allow me to vote for this legislation.”

Likewise, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a wild card among Democrats who never stops promoting his own healthcare bill, said that Baucus’s measure does not constitute “real reform.”

“My vote in committee is going to depend to a great extent on whether we can get on that real road to meaningful reform and bipartisanship,” Wyden said. “The chairman’s mark,” he said, “does some very good things, yet there is still a lot to do to place the country on the road to real reform.”

Though the markup offered little chance for surprises, the White House sent Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle. It also didn’t stop lobbyists and their paid line-sitters from packing the halls of the Hart Senate Office Building for hours before the event began.

Baucus opened the proceedings by sounding a characteristically optimistic note: “My colleagues, this is our opportunity to make history,” he said. “Let us make this a time for progress. Let us seize the moment.”

Baucus said several changes to the bill had increased its cost to about $900 billion over 10 years, but that it would result in a net deficit reduction.

Republicans offered their own grandiose rhetoric: “This is a stunning assault on liberty,” said Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who decried the bill’s requirement that most people obtain health insurance.

Republicans hammered away on the hundreds of billions of dollars in new taxes raised by the bill, and the hundreds of billions raised through fees on healthcare companies they argued would be passed along to consumers. Those taxes, they said, would inevitably hit people making less than $250,000 a year, thus violating an Obama campaign pledge.

In addition to these political arguments intended for the outside world, Republicans had plenty of insider process complaints. Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) led a chorus of Republicans who complained that things were moving too fast at the behest of the White House and Senate Democratic leadership, who pushed Baucus to get moving.

“It would be the same as if you had a house that was half-built when the contractor declared it done and said, ‘Here’s your house. Move in tomorrow.’

Would you move your family in?” Grassley said. “Their deadline causing the end to our bipartisan work before it was done is just as absurd. I find it utterly and completely appalling.”

But Democrats are clearly pleased to leave the issue on that fast track. Baucus — very optimistically — said healthcare reform legislation could be on the Senate floor next week. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reiterated his threat to move the measure on a simple majority without Republicans through budget reconciliation.

Indeed, after more than a year of preparation, more than 60 bipartisan sit-downs and countless hours spent in public and private meetings, Democrats scoffed at the notion the bill was being forced through. “Only in Washington could people argue that we’ve rushed this process,” said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

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