Bipartisan Prospects Bleak For Baucus Health Bill

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus's newly unveiled centrist health plan still faces a bipartisan gauntlet. Republicans say it gives the government too much control over health care, and still costs too much. Some Democrats say too many concessions were made to Republicans, who won't vote for it anyway. It's a long way from soup.

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A Senate committee has made its opening bid for a health care overhaul after months of secret meetings and repeated delays. The Finance Committee's proposed bill was intended to be bipartisan. Three Republicans and three Democrats negotiated the terms, but by yesterday not a single one of those Republicans was behind it.

NPR's David Welna has this report.

DAVID WELNA: The Finance Committee's plan is by far the cheapest of the five health care bills pending in Congress. Unlike the others which all cost around a trillion dollars over the next decade, this one is estimated by the Congressional Budget Office to cost $774 billion. It would foster consumer owned health insurance co-operatives instead of a government run public option.

It would allow insurance to be sold across state lines. It would also ensure that no household pays more than 13 percent of its income on mandatory health coverage. As Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus unveiled the bill yesterday, he said it provided generous affordable health coverage for more than 90 percent of the population.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): It represents an effort to reach common ground and a real chance to health care reform. And it is balanced, a common sense bill that can pass the Senate.

WELNA: But Mitch McConnell, who leads the Senate's Republican minority, lumped this bill with the others as partisan and overreaching.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): While getting rid of the government plan would be a good start, the Democratic bills we've seen will still grant the government far, far too much control over the health care system.

WELNA: Those charges were echoed by Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi, one of the three Republicans involved in efforts to hammer out a bipartisan bill. Enzi said that despite the months of negotiating, more time was still needed to come up with a satisfactory product.

Senator MIKE ENZI (Republican, Wyoming): The bill fails to meet the promises for middle-class Americans. It spends too much and it does too little. It cuts Medicare for many. And it overloads the Medicaid system. And Washington says what adequate insurance will be with everybody and then penalizes you if you don't agree.

WELNA: Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said that the bill's bipartisan prospects were bleak.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): I can't support that and I don't think - I don't think - I don't imagine any Republican will support it.

WELNA: But it's not only Republicans who have problems with the Finance Committee bill. Liberal Democrats consider it far too conservative. They say it doesn't provide enough support for expanded Medicaid coverage. And they also object to its lack of a public option.

West Virginia Democrat Jay Rockefeller says the bill's health insurance co-ops are not the answer.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): That's an agricultural thing, that's a utility thing, that's an electrical thing. It's not a health care thing. There are between four or seven in the entire country, all just inside of states, it's untested.

WELNA: Rockefeller said he won't vote for the bill in its present form. Florida Democrat Bill Nelson said on the Senate floor that he too has concerns about the Finance Committee plan. But as a member of that panel, Nelson said he'll try to modify the bill when the committee takes it up next week.

Senator BILL NELSON (Democrat, Florida): This isn't the end-all and be-all. This is a starting point. We're going to do the amendments probably for two weeks in the Finance Committee, and then it's going to come out here and it's going to get amended here. And then it's going to go to a conference committee and it's going to get amended more.

WELNA: And while not a single Senate Republican has embraced the latest health care proposal, Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden said he's not giving up hope.

Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): It's clear, if you want to bring the country together, you ought to focus on being bipartisan. If that's not possible, then you go from there, but I'm not giving up on bipartisanship in any way.

WELNA: Committee Chairman Baucus for his part says he's confident at least some Republicans will end up voting for a health care overhaul.

Sen. BAUCUS: This has a certain sense of inevitability. Is it going to pass? I think with that more and more people are going to think, oh gee, first of all, it may be the right thing to do, at least make this effort. And probably this is not too far off the track from what we need to do. So let me work with it, see what I can do to make it better. I fully believe, as I've said many times, at the end of the day there is going to be Republican support for this bill.

WELNA: Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leaders hope to pull together their own troops on health care today. The Democratic caucus is meeting to figure out how to keep the momentum going for passing a bill this year.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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