Vulnerable Senate Dems don't rule out voting against Obama cost-control board

Several Senate Democrats up for reelection tell The Hill they haven't ruled out bucking President Obama by voting to repeal the health law's cost-control board.

The House is expected to repeal the Independent Payment Advisory Board next week, putting pressure on the Senate to follow suit. While the bill has broad bipartisan support in the House, no Senate Democrats have so far signed onto repeal legislation despite coming under increasing pressure to do so.

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"We're looking at it, let's put it that way," said Sen. Joe Machin (D-W.Va.). "We'll weigh the pros and cons" if the bill hits the floor.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), another conservative Democrat in a tight race, said via a spokesman that she would take a  "hard look" at the proposal if it ever came before the Senate.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a liberal, also declined to rule out voting for repeal.

"I'm not going to answer a what-if question when it's not at all clear what would come up," he said.

McCaskill and Brown are reeling from a $3.5 million ad campaign by the conservative 60 Plus seniors' lobby that also targets Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

Senators are also hearing from a wide array of powerful stakeholder groups, including the American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association, that are lobbying hard to get the board nixed.

The intense lobbying is putting Obama's deficit-cutting efforts at risk. The IPAB is one of the few provisions of the healthcare reform law that has the potential to cut federal healthcare spending, by recommending cuts to Medicare provider payments if costs start to grow too fast.

Obama, as part of his $3 trillion deficit-reduction plan last year, called for strengthening the IPAB by allowing it to become operational sooner and lowering the growth target at which it kicks into gear. Republicans, however, have attacked the panel of 15 experts as a "rationing board," a charge that has made it harder for Democrats to support the measure.

In the House, 20 Democrats have co-sponsored legislation to repeal the board, and many more had been expected to vote for repeal. That expectation was squashed however after Republicans decided to pay for the $3 billion cost of repealing the board by tying it to medical malpractice legislation that's much more controversial.

The difficulty in finding an acceptable offset may also give Senate Democrats an easy out.

The Senate repeal bill, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), is paid for by cutting the health law's insurance subsidies. That may not be acceptable to Democrats and does nothing to control Medicare costs.

"I think that people who are attacking IPAB need to come up with their own solutions on how we restrain costs," Brown said. "They keep talking about costs, but they never have offered anything."