Senate Health Care Negotiations Hit Snag, as Top Republican Raises New Objections

Senate negotiations for a bipartisan health care bill hit yet another snag Wednesday, as the top Republican negotiator asked his Democratic counterpart to reconsider two critical elements of his compromise proposal. 

Sources told FOX News that Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, has asked Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., to reconsider a plan to require almost all Americans to get health insurance and to fine them thousands if they don't. 

A source said Grassley does not find those provisions acceptable. Under the compromise offered by Baucus, a family could be fined up to $3,800 for failing to obtain insurance. 

Body language spoke volumes Wednesday, as negotiators became terse with reporters. 

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said any reference to deadlines was unhelpful and said emphatically, "What is critical is that we achieve a result by the end of the year. If we have (full committee consideration) in the next couple of weeks, that will be plenty of time to get this job done." 

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, another Senate negotiator, said there is still concern about the size of the package which is carrying a near $900 billion price tag. 

"Maybe we could shrink that to $800 billion or below," the moderate senator told FOX News, citing a skeptical public with bailout fatigue and concern for rising deficits. Snowe said she is certain there will be amendments offered in committee to scale back the scope of the bill. 

The group of six senators is still trying to reach a bipartisan bill, though Baucus said Wednesday he's going to be introducing a package with or without Republican support. The negotiations have dragged on for weeks, even as four House and Senate committees passed versions of their own. 

Amid the debate, another Republican negotiator called on President Obama to support medical malpractice reforms, something that does not appear in the Baucus proposal. 

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo, said in an column published on FOXNews.com, "We must eliminate frivolous malpractice cases, which not only drive up costs through malpractice insurance, settlements and legal fees, but also force doctors to practice defensive medicine, where they order unnecessary tests and treatments to protect themselves from getting sued." 

Baucus said Wednesday he still hopes to win over Republicans, but made clear that their support is not a necessity for him. 

"I very much hope and do expect Republicans will be on board. I don't know how many, but if there are not any, I am going to move forward in any event," he said. 

Democrats on the committee who are not directly participating in compromise talks met privately for an hour with Baucus, and they emerged voicing concerns that Baucus was making too many compromises with Republicans. 

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he had a number of problems with the Baucus plan, particularly with the lack of choices and with affordability. The senator said he is concerned that middle-income Americans will not be able to afford coverage under the plan as it stands. 

Wyden also said he will offer an amendment called the "Free Choice" amendment that says, "Over a period of time, all Americans will be able to get access to the good quality, affordable choices available at the marketplace, called 'the exchange'. What you have now, the only people who get to get into the (exchange) are folks who are unemployed, folks who are uninsured, and folks with small businesses." 

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., a staunch proponent of a government-run health care option, eviscerated one component of the Baucus proposal -- non-profit cooperatives. Rockefeller said emphatically, "They don't work." 

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who is not on the Finance Committee but took up the helm of the other Senate committee crucial to health care reform efforts, also told FOX News, "I'm for a public option. I still have not seen a viable co-op plan. I mean, how is it portable? If it's regional, then why not just have a public plan?" 

Baucus said Wednesday that he does not have the votes to get a so-called "public option" out of his committee, as Republicans and some moderate Democrats do not support it. Cooperatives are seen, by some, as an alternative to the public option. This alone has liberal Democrats up in arms. 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., dodged a question about government-run health care versus co-ops, saying he is "for a public option" but that he did not want to "get into hypotheticals," as it is unclear what will eventually come out of the Senate. Reid said Democrats will have an opportunity to offer a public option as an amendment in the Finance Committee. 

Reforms to Medicare Advantage also emerged as a point of concern for a number of Democrats. 

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Finance Committee, told reporters that he is very concerned about cuts, saying that proposals thus far will hurt seniors. Nelson said he has a proposal that will keep that from happening, though he would offer no details. 

Some Senate Democratic leadership aides continue to insist that a budgetary tactic called "reconciliation," which allows Democrats to circumvent a filibuster and push through a more liberal plan, is more likely. Still, parliamentary experts say this is a very dicey path, as Republicans can throw up many obstacles that could leave a Democrat-only bill looking like legislative Swiss cheese.