Baucus not worried about CBO score

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) expects his committee will approve healthcare legislation in the coming days, saying an independent cost estimate won't unhinge the bill's progress.

The panel is waiting on a score from the Congressional Budget Office before holding a final vote, but Baucus doesn’t think it will force them to return to the drawing board. “I expect that we will not have to go back and change because of the CBO score. That’s my expectation,” he said.

Baucus said he was unaware of when the score would be available, but was hopeful would come in time to allow a final vote this week. If not, the vote would be pushed off until next week.

The perceived delay in the CBO score has triggered anxiety about whether that means bad news -- such as a $1 trillion-plus cost estimate that fails to meet Obama’s promise not to add to the budget deficit -- is on the horizon. Such a CBO score would further drag out the Finance Committee’s work to put out a healthcare bill. Other Finance Committee Democrats indicated they had received no word from the CBO, though Baucus hinted he had been privy to “signals here and there” about his bill’s cost but would reveal what they were.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who has been highly critical of Baucus’s legislation, was less sanguine about staying on pace to get the bill out of committee by week’s end. “Now they’re talking about maybe not ‘til next week,” he said. Given that unanimous Democratic support for the bill in committee isn’t guaranteed -- Rockefeller and Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.) are the most agitated about Baucus’s bill -- and that Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) remains noncommittal, additional uncertainty is highly unwelcome to the Democrats.

Baucus said his flock will come together when the time comes. “I think when the final vote’s cast that they’ll be supporting the bill. I very much hope so and I think so,” he said.

Finance Committee Republicans, who presented hundreds of amendments during the markup, signaled Tuesday that they are not finished pressing their points against the bill. In a letter sent to Baucus Tuesday, ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) requested that CBO Director Doug Elmendorf and Joint Committee on Taxation Chief of Staff John Barthold be present before the vote to take questions on the cost and revenue estimates of the bill.

Republicans also been insistent they have ample time to review the complete bill and the CBO score before a vote is held. The amended legislation has been publicly available since Friday. If GOP senators– and especially Snowe – demand additional time to evaluate the CBO score, that could create additional problems for Baucus.

Baucus is eager to move ahead and so is Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who will have to meld the Finance Committee’s bill with a separate measure approved by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in July. Reid wants the combined bill on the floor next week.

Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), who is the lead negotiator for the HELP Committee, and Baucus both said Tuesday that preliminary discussions had begun. “It won’t be dragged out,” Baucus said.