Published September 16, 2009
The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee released his much-anticipated version of a health care reform plan on Wednesday, but was knocked back quickly by Republican and liberal Democratic opposition that called the plan undoable.
Despite the early criticisms, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., said that his plan, which has no government-run insurance option, is a "common-sense bill that can pass the Senate" and represents a compromise. The proposal does include a different system aimed at providing Americans an alternative to traditional private insurance.
"This is our chance to reform health care in America. We cannot let this opportunity pass," he said, predicting that he will eventually attract Republicans. "We will act."
The package was pegged at $856 billion over 10 years, which is less than the $880 billion price tag Baucus previously advertised. It also largely follows the outline given by President Obama a week ago. The Congressional Budget Office gave the bill a price tag of $774 billion over 10 years and a savings of $49 billion to the deficit during that time.
The proposal requires all individuals to buy health insurance or pay a fine. It prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions or from imposing caps on payouts. It provides tax credits to help low- and middle-income families purchase insurance. And it creates a Web-based insurance exchange aimed at making purchasing insurance, and comparing plans, easier.
"This is a good bill. This is a balanced bill. It can pass the Senate," Baucus said Wednesday, adding that it should attract "broad support."
A senior administration official deeply involved in health care reform strategy said the package "should" attract at least a little Republican support considering the "concessions" it includes.
The official said the White House sees Baucus' bill as closest to the plan Obama announced in his speech to a joint session of Congress and considers its unveiling a big step toward breaking the legislative logjam.
"There is a sense of momentum after the president's speech and this legislation represents that can keep it moving," the official said. "There is something in here that everybody likes and there is something in here everybody dislikes."
Baucus' language isn't actually in bill form yet. Senate rules allow the Finance Committee to "mark up" or vote on provisions and amendments as the bill is presented in committee. That is expected to happen next week.
Democratic leaders are aiming for votes in the full House and Senate later this year.
The would-be bill contains two provisions on the controversial issues of abortion and illegal aliens.
Baucus' plan says that federal funds will continue to be prohibited to pay for abortions unless the pregnancy is due to to rape, incest, or if the life of the mother is in danger.
However, it allows a "qualified health plan" in an insurance exchange to be free to provide coverage for abortions "beyond those for which federal funds appropriated for the Department of Health and Human Services are permitted."
As for illegal aliens, the chairman's provision prevents access to the state exchanges obtaining federal health care tax credits and requires citizens to be verified with the Social Security Administration their name, Social Security number and date of birth, and for legal residents to be verified through Department of Homeland Security data.
"Individuals whose claims of citizenship or lawful status cannot be verified with federal data must be allowed substantial opportunity to provide documentation or correct federal data related to their case that supports their contention," reads the language. "Appropriate penalties will apply to the use of fraudulent information or stolen identity information in the state exchange."
The plan would be paid for with $507 billion in cuts to existing government health programs and $349 billion in new taxes and fees. Among them would be a 35 percent tax on insurance companies for high-cost plans.
The language does not fulfill Obama's aim of creating a new government-run insurance plan -- or "public option" -- to compete with the private market.
It proposes instead a system of nonprofit member owned cooperatives, somewhat akin to electric co-ops that exist in many places around the United States. That was one of many concessions meant to win over Republicans.
Obama said last Wednesday during his address to a joint session of Congress that such an idea is an alternative worth considering. The president has backed the so-called public option but made clear in recent weeks that he's open to alternatives for the sake of winning votes.
Baucus is flying solo, for now, on the proposal after months of negotiations with five other senators -- two other Democrats, and three Republicans.
Baucus is still holding out hope for Republican support when his committee actually votes on the bill.
The bill represents the most moderate health care proposal in Congress so far, compared to legislation approved by three committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate's health panel.
The White House is hopeful Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe will back the package. They are less optimistic about Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the other two Republicans who negotiated with Baucus.
Snowe wasn't ready to commit her support just yet. In a written statement Wednesday, she called the introduction a "first step" toward crafting a bill that she and other Republicans can support.
"I believe the chairman's legislation moves in the right direction away from a government-run system contained in bills that have passed other congressional committees, but a number of issues still need to be addressed" including affordability, she said.
The package drew quick criticism from Republican leaders as well as liberal House Democrats.
"This partisan proposal cuts Medicare by nearly a half-trillion dollars, and puts massive new tax burdens on families and small businesses, to create yet another thousand-page, trillion-dollar government program," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. "Only in Washington would anyone think that makes sense, especially in this economy."
"Forcing through a partisan bill gives the impression that Democratic leadership and the White House are more concerned with political victories than they are with passing lasting, bipartisan health care reform. I hope that's not the case," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, head of the committee tasked with electing Republican senators.
"Seldom have so many waited so long for so little. This isn't negotiation; it is capitulation to the insurance industry," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas.
However, Blue Dog Democrats, fiscal moderates willing to challenge House leadership on the cost of a government-run plan, looked favorably on the language in early remarks.
"The draft released by Chairman Baucus addresses two central goals of the Blue Dog Coalition and the administration: It is deficit neutral, and it takes real steps to bring down the cost of health care over the long term," said Blue Dog Co-Chairwoman for Administration Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D.
The Baucus plan provides for penalties up to $3,800 for those who do not get health insurance coverage.
The penalty for individuals who make between 100 and 300 percent of poverty would be $750 per year -- the fee would be up to $1,500 for families. For individuals above 300 percent of poverty, the penalty is $950 per year -- the fee would be up to $3,800 for families. Exemptions are included in the plan.
Though Obama last week backed some form of preliminary medical malpractice reform -- something Republicans have long sought -- the Baucus plan does not legislate such action. Instead it expresses the "sense of the Senate" that Congress should consider such reforms.
FOX News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.