Senate Panel Slogs Through Health Bill Amendments

The Senate Finance Committee is working though more than 500 amendments offered to the health care bill proposed by Chairman Max Baucus. One of the amendments defeated Thursday would have unraveled a key element in the deal struck between the Obama administration and drug companies — a deal that helped the bill get this far.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

Time for an update on what's happening with the health care bills in Congress. The Senate Finance Committee met late into the night, slogging through more than 500 amendments offered to the bill of Chairman Max Baucus. One of the amendments defeated yesterday would have unraveled a key element in the deal struck between the Obama administration and drug companies, a deal that helped the bill get this far.

Here to talk about this is NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson.

Good morning, Mara.

MARA LIASSON: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So, what exactly happened yesterday?

LIASSON: Well, many amendments were voted on, but this particular one would have required the drug companies to rebate about $106 billion for elderly people and low income recipients, and it failed. Ten Democrats voted for it, but 13 Democrats and Republicans voted to defeat it.

WERTHEIMER: So what's the problem with that?

LIASSON: You mean that it sounds like pretty good, nobody likes the drug companies. Why did it fail? Well, the White House, Max Baucus, and big PhRMA - the drug lobby - cut a deal that would have had the drug companies give back only $80 billion, not 106. And in return for this deal, the drug companies agreed not only not to oppose health care, but actually they've been spending millions and millions of dollars in ads supporting it.

So, the White House made a calculation that this time around they couldn't pass health care reform if the interest groups, the big interest groups like the drug companies, were on the other side like they were in 1992.

Now, Democrats in the House hate this deal. Many Senate Democrats, like Bill Nelson of Florida and Chuck Schumer of New York, don't like it either. They say this deal favors drug companies over seniors. But they could not prevail.

WERTHEIMER: Are there more deals like this? There are a lot of special interest groups out there.

LIASSON: Now we call them stakeholders.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: I see.

LIASSON: They're special interest groups...

WERTHEIMER: Are they?

LIASSON: ...when they're on the other side from you, but they're stakeholders when they're on your side. There are plenty more deals, and they are not secret. The White House has been trumpeting these deals with doctors, with hospitals, saying look, these people are willing to help, to put real money into health care reform. And there are many people that I've talked to who say these deals allowed the health care overhaul effort to withstand that August rebellion, the town hall meeting kind of uprising. The interest groups stood firm, and therefore so did lawmakers. They get supported by these interest groups. A lot of these people provide a lot of jobs in their states. So even though you saw public opinion slip over the summer, you didn't really see a shift in Congress. The center, such as it is, held.

Many members were spooked about the opposition, but they didn't jump ship. What we find now in the fall is that pretty much the same number of people are for and against health care overhaul in the United States Congress as there were before the summer.

WERTHEIMER: So does the president have enough support to get the package passed or to get a package passed that comes close to what the White House wants?

LIASSON: Well, that's the big question. He certainly has enough support to get something passed. And I think the White House is very flexible about what it wants. It'll take, I think, almost anything that it can credibly call a health care reform. And so far, this thing is slogging forward step by difficult step.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thank you very much.

LIASSON: Thank you, Linda.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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