- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 28, 2009

President Obama and his Democratic allies, scrambling to broker a health care deal Monday, finally got an upbeat assessment from Congress’ official scorekeeper when it said the plan for government-run coverage would not force out private insurers.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer trumpeted the report from the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’ nonpartisan budget analyst, that said private insurers could survive competition from a government health insurance option - contradicting a chief criticism from Republicans.

“Now we’ve heard that the reform will represent a government takeover of health care. A point of fact: The opposite is true,” said Mr. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

Republicans have said the public health insurance option, which would likely have low reimbursement rates, would drive private insurers out of business. They argue that once private insurers are gone, the public option would be the only health insurance option.

Republicans touted a report from theLewin Group, a health research firm owned by an insurance company, that predicted 100 million people out of the 160 million now covered by employer-sponsored insurance would go to the government coverage.

But the CBO estimates about 12 million people would opt for the public plan. The wide difference in estimates is the result of drastically different assumptions about the price of the plans. CBO estimated the public plan would cost 10 percent less than private plans, compared with the Lewin Group estimate that it would be 20 percent cheaper.

The CBO has been a source of partisan angst in the health care debate, with recent reports undermining the Democrats’ plans by determining they would not cut costs and result in unsustainable growth in government spending.

That verdict helped cement resistance from the conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House and bolstered Republican criticism that the country can’t afford the $1 trillion price tag.

It also prompted Mr. Obama last week to summon CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf to a White House meeting - a somewhat unusual move that Republicans warned smelled of playing politics with a nonpartisan entity.

The CBO report, which also found that the employer requirement to provide insurance would cover 12 million new people, comes as Democrats try to push the bill through the Energy and Commerce Committee and to the full House floor.

Blue Dog Democrats on that panel are holding up Mr. Obama’s top domestic priority over the public plan that they say needs more cost-saving measures. The plodding pace of those talks and the crowded floor schedule make it increasingly unlikely the House will meet the August deadline set by Mr. Obama.

Senate Democrats, who are scheduled to remain in Washington until Aug. 7, have already abandoned hope of finishing a bill by then.

The Senate Finance Committee continued negotiations on its plan Monday, which likely will not include a requirement that employers provide insurance, said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican. Instead of the mandate, the group is considering strong incentives to encourage employers to provide insurance, such as requiring employers to cover the cost of their employees’ subsidy if they go on the public plan.

House Democrats called an all-member meeting late Monday, expected to last five hours, to review the 1,000-plus-page bill and counter Republican criticism that members haven’t even read it.

While the House is trying to patch things up with the Blue Dogs, some of the more liberal members in the House were concerned the bill would get skewed too far to the right.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York said he would only support the bill if it has a “robust” public option, something that could be sacrificed to get Blue Dog support, which is required to get the bill out of the committee.

He said Democratic leaders were walking a fine line between wooing Blue Dogs and satisfying the caucus’ liberal faction. But he was confident the liberal side would win.

“I think there are more of us than them,” Mr. Nadler said.

A vote in the full House is still unlikely this week before the House is scheduled to adjourn Friday for its August recess.

“When the Energy and Commerce Committee finishes its work, then we can make a decision about when we will have that vote,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

But underlying the debate in the House is anxiety over how the Senate is going to act. The Senate has already pushed its floor vote to September. Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said he expects the Finance Committee to mark up its bill next week.

The House plan includes a new set of taxes on the most wealthy Americans - a proposal not likely to be included in the Senate plan. Couples making more than $350,000 would face new taxes, including a 5.4 percent increase on millionaires. House Democrats are reluctant to vote on the measure, particularly if it isn’t likely to become law.

As the Blue Dogs continued to press for changes to the bill, they got a taste of the political pummeling in store for them during the August break back home, where Republicans are painting them as collaborators in Democrats’ government takeover of health care.

The National Republican Congressional Committee on Monday hit dozens of vulnerable Democrats - including Blue Dog leaders Mike Ross of Arkansas, Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Charlie Melancon of Louisiana - for lining up with party leaders against the interests of local businesses.

The attack, which found its way into local news coverage, cited companies in the members’ districts that signed on with 39 national business groups to a letter to Democratic leaders criticizing the House plan as a “step in the wrong direction.”

Shuler spokesman Doug Abrahms said it was “ironic that Republicans are attacking Representative Shuler for supporting the current health care bill when he opposes it in its current form because it does not do enough to cut wasteful spending or lower the cost of medical services.”

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee launched radio ads in 33 states targeting 60 House Democrats warning about a “dangerous experiment” with health care.

“If Barack Obama and the Democrats get their way, the federal government will make the decisions about your health care,” the radio ad says. “And, their plan costs a trillion dollars we don’t have. You have to pay a new tax to keep your private insurance. It’s too much, too fast.”

It is part of the RNC’s $1 million radio and TV ad campaign in August against the health plan.

Negotiations between Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, California Democrat, and Blue Dogs devolved Friday into accusations from each side accusing the other of torpedoing discussions.

By the end of the day, the groups agreed to make up and continue discussions.

Blue Dogs have said they won’t support a public health insurance option that is based on Medicare rates. They say Medicare rates are not distributed evenly and put their rural areas at a disadvantage.

They’re also concerned that small businesses are going to be hit too hard by the “pay or play” requirement. And Blue Dogs say the shape of the bill doesn’t do enough to limit the rising costs of health care.