By Jeffrey Young - 09/29/09 10:00 AM EDT
With 13 Democrats and 10 Republicans, the math is on Baucus’s side. But getting a majority of panel members to back his bill is no easy task — especially with some Democrats complaining about various provisions of the bill he spent months crafting.
Apart from Snowe, the GOP is lined up strongly against the legislation. Baucus can afford to lose one Democrat when the final vote comes — or two if Snowe jumps aboard.
Baucus has solid support from Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who helped conceive the bill that emerged from the ultimately fruitless bipartisan “Gang of Six” negotiations. Fellow Gang member Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) also seems to be behind his chairman, while Democratic Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Tom Carper (Del.) have made mostly positive noises about the bill.
The affordability issue is paramount: Democrats and Snowe need the bill to provide more generous health insurance tax credits to more people, and to make it easier for people to opt out without paying a penalty. The committee also will vote on several amendments that will decide whether a public option is added to the bill — with or without a “trigger” — and whether Conrad’s healthcare cooperatives will survive.
Amendments are expected this week that could win over more Democrats, and Snowe, if they prevail.
The senators to watch and why are detailed below.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine)
The centrist New Englander is the most-watched person in Congress right now. During the markup, Snowe has mostly backed her GOP colleagues during amendment votes, the most notable exception being her vote to retain the individual mandate.
Snowe’s demands can be summed up in a word: affordability. The subsidies need to be boosted and the mandate relaxed for Snowe to feel comfortable. In the meantime, Snowe knows how valuable her vote is and is in no rush to tip her hand.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.)
Rockefeller made waves two weeks ago when he categorically stated he would vote against Baucus’s bill.
After a sit-down with President Barack Obama and a week watching Baucus get attacked by Republicans, though, Rockefeller seems more poised than ever to at least help keep the legislation moving. But he continues to have grave concerns about affordability, children’s healthcare and the effect of an insurance tax on coalminers, other high-risk workers and early retirees — and he’s a vehement supporter of a strong public option.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Wyden has been working for several years on his own healthcare reform bill. The measure, co-sponsored by Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), arguably goes even further than the Democratic bills in Congress this year by making it easy for people to opt out of employer-based insurance and enter a more dynamic individual marketplace.
Wyden strongly believes that Baucus’s bill does too little to provide choices of insurance, especially for people who get it at work, and too little to rein in healthcare spending. Given his passion about his own legislation and fearlessness about criticizing other proposals, Wyden is a real wild card on the Democratic side.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.)
Schumer is one of the most liberal voices on healthcare with a seat on the committee, but he was uncharacteristically quiet in the months preceding the markup. A consummate inside player, Schumer could be biding his time until after the committee finishes and will wield influence as the third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership to push the bill to the left, especially when it comes to the public option.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.)
As the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Menendez is well-aware of the liberal base’s support for the public option. It’s a viewpoint he shares, but more bothersome than the lack of a public option is the way Baucus’s bill treats immigrants. In addition to excluding illegal immigrants from the subsidy and insurance exchange programs, the bill would require legal immigrants to wait five years before accessing the new healthcare system.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.)
When you represent Florida in Congress, healthcare reform is all about the seniors. Despite assurances from Obama and practically every Democratic politician in America that reform won’t upend their Medicare benefits, older people remain skeptical. Nelson has clearly heard their cries and needs to see movement on two critical issues during markup.
The first, raising money from drug makers to make medicines cheaper for beneficiaries, fell victim to a White House deal with the drug industry and a lopsided committee vote. For the second, Nelson wants to ensure that no one enrolled in a private Medicare Advantage plan loses the benefits he or she currently enjoys, even though the program is on the hook for a $133 billion cut.
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.)
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)
For months, Stabenow has said over and over that the Finance Committee is merely one step in a longer journey toward healthcare reform. That’s because she’s known for just as long that any bill produced by the panel would be too far to the center for her liking. Not that she’s planning to vote against it; she wants the political left to know that a “yes” in committee is not the same as a full-throated endorsement of Baucus’s bill. Stabenow is particularly worried about the proposed tax on high-cost insurance pinching constituents who took early-retirement buyouts, including generous health benefits, from their union jobs.