Healthcare, texting and Afghanistan

The highlight will be Tuesday’s long-awaited Senate Finance Committee vote on a bill to overhaul the healthcare system. For several months, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has attracted criticism from the left and right. But on the eve of the panel vote, his persistence has paid off.

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He has a bill that the Congressional Budget Office says will reduce the fiscal deficit (while not fully accounting for the eventual scrapping of the flawed Medicare physician reimbursement system) while covering 94 percent of the uninsured. Its net outlays are less than President Barack Obama’s 10-year goal of $900 billion.

Still, killing a bill is much easier than passing it.

As legislation inches forward, industry groups have grown increasingly restless with the proposals. The health insurance industry came out swinging against the Baucus bill on Monday, claiming in a new report that it would cost the average family $4,000 per year in higher premiums.

For years, health insurers have resisted coverage mandates being considered in the halls of Congress.

In a twist, the industry is urging lawmakers to place strong mandates on individuals to buy insurance so that both the unhealthy and healthy will be covered.

If many healthy people are not forced to buy insurance, premiums will skyrocket, the industry warns.

Some in Congress are wary of forcing employers to cover employees and/or fining people who don’t buy insurance.

Democrats want reform, but they disagree on how to do it. Over the next several weeks, they must find a single voice if they are going to get legislation to the president.

House leadership wanted to pass a bill by the August recess, but nearly two weeks before Halloween, the work of melding three committee-passed bills continues.

Obama shifted his attention somewhat to Afghanistan this month. As he mulls whether to send tens of thousands more troops there, the House and Senate will hold hearings on the issue this week.

The Senate Commerce Committee, meanwhile, will hold a hearing on distracted driving and debate whether the federal government should ban texting and/or BlackBerrying while operating a motor vehicle.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who has introduced legislation on the issue, noted this year that AAA found that 87 percent of people polled consider texting while driving a serious threat, but one in five said they did it anyway.


PLAYER OF THE WEEK

The question that has been repeatedly asked over the last few months will be answered on Tuesday when Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) registers her vote on Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus’s (D-Mont.) healthcare bill.

She suggested last month that she would not support it, but has not repeated that firm stance recently.

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A “yes” vote would allow Democrats to tout the legislation as bipartisan and would give Baucus significant leverage when his bill is merged with the measure approved along party lines by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

A “no” vote would probably unite and embolden the Republican opposition. While some Democrats would repeat their claim that the GOP is the party of “no,” liberals would make the case that the Baucus bill, which contains no public option, should be discarded.

There are other ramifications. If Snowe votes with the Democrats, she may not get the top GOP post on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. If she is rebuffed, many on Capitol Hill will watch her very closely, looking for clues that she might consider leaving the Republican Party, as Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) did this year.

While centrist Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has ruled out changing parties, Snowe has kept the door open.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), much like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is a master political chess player. When making decisions, McConnell can anticipate a move and countermove well before they are made.

McConnell did not publicly criticize Collins, Specter or Snowe when they voted for the stimulus. He must have been frustrated, but he knew that lambasting them would do him no good and might do him and his conference some harm. It is unlikely that he would do anything that could risk another GOP defection six months after the Specter bombshell.

Snowe’s committee vote will indicate whether healthcare reform has a good chance to pass this year. There will be many other indications in the week ahead, but Snowe’s vote will reshape the healthcare debate, one way or the other.