Finance Committee rests, vote next week

The Senate Finance Committee completed its mark up of far-reaching healthcare legislation in the wee hours of Friday morning.

Though the panel will not hold a vote on the legislation until next week -- and key senators are still noncommittal about where they stand -- lawmakers adopted a number of key amendments throughout the seventh and final day of its consideration of the long-awaited bill.

“I think we can be very proud of what we’re doing,” Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said as the committee wrapped up its work. White House Office of Health Reform Director Nancy-Ann DeParle looked on from the audience.

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If the committee votes to advance its legislation, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will head up negotiations among senior Democratic senators to meld the Finance Committee’s centrist measure with a more liberal bill previously approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Democrats, along with centrist Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine), made clear that more changes will be needed to satisfy them, either during the process of combining the two committee’s bills or during the Senate floor debate later this month. In particular, senators want to increase the value of the tax credits, offer assistance to more people and provide more assurance that insurance coverage will be less expensive under reform.

From 10:30 a.m. Thursday until after 2 a.m. Friday, the Finance Committee made changes to the underlying bill, authored by Baucus, designed to win over skeptical Democrats as well as Snowe, a crucial swing vote and the Democrats’ best hope for a bipartisan vote in committee and on the Senate floor.

Among the amendments added was a provision intended to limit executive pay at insurance companies, who are expected to reap millions of new customers from healthcare reform.

In a 14-8 vote, the committee added a measure that would limit the tax deductibility of executive pay to $500,000 from the $1 million allowed under existing law. The amendment was offered by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), a centrist Democrat.

The committee’s final vote on the bill will not take place until next week because Baucus promised senators they could review the final package and an official Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate of its cost before being asked to vote. Baucus predicted that score would be completed Tuesday or Wednesday.

President Barack Obama released a statement praising the Finance Committee's work.

"We are now closer than ever before to finally passing reform that will offer security to those who have coverage and affordable insurance to those who don’t," he said. "We have a long way to go, but I am confident that as we move forward, we will continue to engage with each other as productively as the members of the Finance Committee, and will get reform passed this year.”

The bill would establish state and regional health insurance exchanges for individuals and small-business employees. People with incomes from 133 percent of the federal poverty level and 300 percent of poverty would receive tax credits to help pay for insurance and people below 133 percent would receive Medicaid benefits. The bill would require a total of about $900 billion in new federal spending that would be offset with Medicare and Medicaid spending cuts and new tax revenue.

Snowe and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) teamed up to offer an amendment, adopted with Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) as the lone dissenter, to relax the financial penalties in the bill for people who do not abide by the individual mandate to obtain health coverage.

Near the close of the proceedings, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the leading skeptic among Democrats, presented a slate of amendments agreed to by Baucus and the committee’s Democrats. The amendments would add about $11 billion to the cost of the bill. Snowe voted against the amendments along with her fellow Republicans.

Among other things, Rockefeller prevailed on his amendment to strip language from Baucus’s bill that would have moved low-income kids from the Children’s Health Insurance Program into private coverage from the health insurance exchange created by the bill. The Rockefeller amendments also would raise the threshold for an excise tax on high-cost insurance plans serving people between 55 and 65 years old and people in high-risk jobs.

Before the mark up began, Rockefeller declared he would vote against the bill unless substantial changes were made. Though he did not disclose his intentions, Baucus’s concessions to Rockefeller could prove key to the outcome of the committee’s vote.

In another moved aimed at swaying liberal senators on and off the Finance Committee who favor the creation of a government-run public option program to compete with private insurers, Democrats on the panel voted to support Sen. Maria Cantwell’s (D-Wash.) amendment to allow for state-government-run plans for people with incomes between 133 percent and 200 percent of poverty.

Baucus and a few Democrats joined with Republicans Wednesday to defeat two Democratic amendments to create a national public option.