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Senate panel blocks GOP’s abortion, illegals measures

- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2009

Senate Republicans on Wednesday failed in their bids to strengthen provisions to prevent both taxpayer funding of abortions and illegal immigrants from obtaining access to government tax credits in the health care reform bill.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, hoping to cull support for his reform proposal, told Democrats he's open to reworking some of the new taxes in the bill, including the tax on high-valued insurance plans. Democrats did succeed in their effort to spare seniors from a proposed a tax increase, but killed a Republican proposal to eliminate a new tax on insurance companies.

The committee voted to allow seniors to deduct personal medical expenses when they hit 7.5 percent of their annual income. Mr. Baucus's proposal will raise that rate to 10 percent for other age groups. Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine joined Democrats to support the change.

The committee completed its sixth day of debate on its health care reform bill Wednesday, its longest mark-up session in at least 15 years.

The bill is expected to reach the floor of the Senate during the week of Oct. 12, Majority Leader Harry Reid said Wednesday. He has the difficult task of trying to meld the Finance Committee's bill with a dramatically different reform bill from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Mr. Baucus said on Wednesday that he still expects Republicans to support his bill in the final vote. "That's my hope and also my expectation," he said.

Two abortion-related proposals from Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, would have restricted public or private health plans that include abortion coverage and would have strengthened protections for health care providers from discrimination if they refuse to provide an abortion.

Because the government may be facilitating private and possibly public insurance coverage through a government health care exchange, opponents of abortion have raised concern that taxpayers would be funding abortions. They hoped to make permanent the so-called Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding of abortions but must be renewed annually.

The amendment requires federal programs, such as Medicaid, to bill patients entirely for any abortion costs and keep the patients' money separate from federal funds. Exceptions are made for abortions in the interest of the mother's life or as a result of rape or incest.

Mr. Baucus outlined a similar structure for the private insurance companies that would operate in the new exchange.

"No federal funds will be used for abortion. Period," he said, adding that he did not want to risk derailing health care reform by changing a controversial abortion law.

Mr. Hatch argued that the segregated funding wouldn't be enough to prevent taxpayers who oppose abortion from funding the procedure.

Democrats said his proposed amendment would result in women having to apply for a waiver in advance if they want abortion coverage.

"As a woman, I find it offensive," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. "This is an unprecedented restriction on people who pay for their own health care insurance."

A second proposal would have banned any local government, agency or health plan from discriminating against health care providers who refuse to provide abortions. It also would have directed the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Health and Human Services to collect and investigate discrimination complaints.

Both amendments failed 13-10. Mrs. Snowe of Maine joined Democrats in opposition, and Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota joined Republicans in support.

Two Republicans also unsuccessfully proposed requiring individuals applying for Medicaid or tax subsidies to provide a government-issued photo ID to ensure that illegal immigrants do not receive aid.

They argued that the requirements in the proposal from Mr. Baucus - name, Social Security number and date of birth - don't do enough to ensure that the applicant is who he or she says.

"Social Security numbers [cannot] verify that the person applying for the benefit is that person," said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Democrats say that the photo ID requirement could make it difficult for some people, including the elderly,to receive needed medical assistance.

Republicans plan to bring their amendments up again when the bill reaches the Senate floor. Democrats may end up taking some of their amendments there, too.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, said he wants to reduce the rate at which so-called "Cadillac" plans are taxed.

Mr. Kerry, who originally proposed the tax, said Mr. Baucus' proposal taxes too many benefits, including expensive plans to cover people in high-risk jobs, such as firefighters or coal miners.

"The threshold is currently set at a level that's too high," he said.

Mr. Kerry said he wanted to work with Mr. Baucus to lower the rate, but suggested he'd bring the amendment to the Senate floor if necessary.