Obama Plays Waiting Game on Health Bill

Obama practice patience with the finance committee

The president of the United States usually waits for no one. But when it comes to health care reform, there’s an exception to the rule: the Senate Finance Committee

President Barack Obama did his best to personally jolt the process Wednesday — delivering Rose Garden marching orders, sitting for interviews with three TV networks and unleashing his political organization to run ads pressing moderate Democrats and Republicans to get on board. 

He praised the Senate health committee for approving the first comprehensive reform bill in years Wednesday — a bill Obama insisted was bipartisan because it included Republican amendments, even though it garnered no GOP votes. 

But the president is still waiting on Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to coax a bipartisan agreement out of his committee. Baucus, meanwhile, is taking a strict no-bill-before-its-time approach, locked in negotiations over how to piece together a politically palatable menu of tax increases to pay for a $1 trillion overhaul. 

And the reality for Obama right now is this: As goes Baucus, so goes any hope of meeting the president’s goal of getting a bill done by August, which grows more in doubt with every passing day.
So Obama waits. 

It doesn’t mean he has to do it patiently. 

Baucus has come under serious pressure from Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to introduce a bill by the end of the week. Baucus left the impression with the group during a White House meeting Monday that he would deliver, Democratic officials said. 

But Baucus continued to play coy Wednesday, frustrating Democrats who are anxious for the Finance Committee to get on with it. 

“It keeps changing,” Baucus said, referring to the financing. “I’m just pushing as hard as I can, talking to as many senators as I can.” 

Just hours after the Senate health committee passed a partisan bill and its leader suggested a Democrat-only approach would be better, Baucus insisted he would not abandon the hope of a bipartisan compromise in the Finance Committee. 

“The president agrees with me,” Baucus said. “He wants a bipartisan bill.” 

Speaking from the Rose Garden with nurses at his side, Obama pressed the White House view that the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee bill was a bipartisan product — raising a question of whether he could live with a Democrats-only Finance Committee bill, as long as there were Republican amendments as well. 

“The naysayers and the cynics still doubt we can do this,” Obama said. “But it wasn’t too long ago that those same naysayers doubted that we’d be able to make real progress on health care reform. And thanks to the work of key committees in Congress, we are now closer to the goal of health reform than we have been.” 

The approval of the $600 billion health bill in the Senate HELP Committee was a critical moment in the history of the Democratic party’s push for health care reform. The HELP bill would provide a federal subsidy for health insurance for uninsured people making up to four times the federal poverty level, or nearly $90,000 for a family of four. 

Obama summoned an unlikely group of GOP senators to the White House on Wednesday for a sit-down on health care. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia were not on any list of potential Republican votes. They have not shown any willingness to consider the public insurance option — the main dividing line between Democrats and Republicans. 

But Obama appeared to be laying the groundwork for future deal-making. Democrats have a filibuster-proof majority on paper, yet leaders are operating on the premise that they may not be able to rely on Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), both of whom are ill. 

That means Democrats, if they hope to pass a bill by the August recess, would need to persuade at least two Republicans to cross the aisle. A fourth Republican long thought to be a possible vote for health reform, Maine Sen. Susan Collins, also got a White House visit. 

Baucus is now negotiating with only three Republicans on his committee: Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, ranking member Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had been in talks with Baucus, but not so much this week. 

By late afternoon, four freshman swing-state Democrats cycled through Baucus’s office, including Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). Baucus had also convened a conference call with Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, and Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican. Both are leaders in the National Governors Association. Five other governors were on the call, Baucus said. 

Several Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee endorsed one of the larger revenue options: a proposal to raise up to $100 billion through new fees on insurers. With the hospital and pharmaceutical industries recently pledging $235 billion to pay for reform, the senators said it was time that the insurers paid their share. 

“We need the insurance companies to step up to the plate and be part of the solution,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Most of the negotiations so far, the insurance industry has been at the table, but you can only sit there at the table with your arms crossed for so long.”
A spokesman for the industry’s trade group, America’s Health Insurance Plans, said new fees would make health care coverage less affordable. 

“To make health care more affordable, policymakers should focus on initiatives that promote value and make the system work better and more efficiently,” AHIP spokesman Robert Zirkelbach said. 

In the House, Democrats continued to lodge their complaints with the Democratic bill, with one prominent Blue Dog telling reporters that he has the votes to defeat the legislation in the Energy and Commerce Committee. The distaste was so strong that some House Democrats even offered rare praise for the Senate. 

“A number of us would rather support the Senate Finance package, much as we’re loath to say that,” said North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee — which has had a longtime rivalry with the Senate Finance panel. 

One of the biggest areas of concern remains the decision to peg reimbursement rates under a public plan to Medicare. Democrats from all over the country complain that the rates are too low, giving these new plans an unfair advantage and, in many cases, favoring hospitals with the worst records of care. Critics complained that the House bill, which establishes a Government Accountability Office study to inspect those disparities, doesn’t go far enough. 

Arkansas Rep. Mike Ross, who has been negotiating the legislation on behalf of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, went a step further, telling reporters Wednesday that he has enough votes at this point to defeat the bill when it comes up for a vote in the Energy and Commerce Committee unless drastic changes are made. 

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) promised to work with Ross and others before he brings the bill up for a vote. 

“We’re going to have to work together,” Waxman told a group of reporters asking about the Ross threat.
But none of this could matter unless the Senate Finance Committee produces a bill in the next few days — the only timeline under which it can get in position to hold a markup next week and go to the Senate floor a week later. 

“I am very sympathetic with the desire to get this up and out of committee, on the floor as soon as possible, and that is my goal,” Baucus said. “We’re going to be ready when we’re ready.”
Asked Wednesday if he told the president he would produce a bill this week — an impression left with those in the meeting — Baucus stepped into the Senate elevator, smiled and waved goodbye as the doors closed. 

Chris Frates contributed to this story.

Copyright POLIT - Politico
Contact Us