- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 29, 2009

House Democratic leaders assembled on the steps of the Capitol on Thursday to release their long-awaited health care reform bill, a plan that would establish a government-run health insurance program and significantly expand Medicaid.

Debate is expected to begin in a week on the legislation, which would also require nearly all U.S. citizens to purchase health insurance and set new rules for private insurers, such as a ban on denying coverage for preexisting conditions.

The bill does not have the so-called “robust” public option, which would reimburse doctors based on Medicare rates plus 5 percent and was favored by liberal Democrats. The more moderate version would allow the Department of Health and Human Services to negotiate rates with providers, as private insurers do.

Democrats praised their progress on reforming the nation’s heath care system, one of President Obama’s top legislative priorities and a goal that has eluded many previous presidents. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, is preparing his version of the health care reform bill for a floor debate in the coming weeks.

The two bills differ in many crucial respects, including how to pay for the reforms and on the structure of the public insurance option.

Still Democrats Thursday were upbeat to have gotten so far in the legislative process.

“Leaders of all political parties … have called and fought for health care and health insurance reform,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said while introducing the bill. “Today we are about to deliver on a promise to make quality affordable health care available to all Americans.”

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House Democratic bill ceremony closed to the public

Drafters of the bill, which has the potential to dramatically alter the nation’s health care system, say it would expand insurance coverage to 36 million uninsured Americans, ensuring coverage of 96 percent of the public.

The reform plan would cost under $900 billion over 10 years — one of the requirements President Obama stressed in his joint address to Congress. Mrs. Pelosi said the bill would reduce the deficit at the end of the 10-year-window.

Top Democrats said Wednesday that they expect to have the 218 votes required for passage. But there are still significant issues that could trip up the bill’s passage, such as concern over the long-term cost of the plan and fears of pro-life lawmakers that the bill would require taxpayers to fund abortions.

Rep. Marion Berry, Arkansas Democrat, said Wednesday that he wasn’t sure yet whether he would support the bill.

“I don’t think we’re getting near enough out of the drug companies and the insurance companies,” he said. “If they’re not squealing to the high heavens, we’ve not done enough.”

The bill runs to 1,990 pages, or 1,000 pages more than the version that was the subject of so much ire during this summer’s congressional town halls in districts around the country.

At a later press conference, House Republican leaders dumped a printed-out copy of the measure on a lectern, calling it a symbol of the size, scope and cost of government expansion the bill would mandate.

“That’s about four reams of paper. I would say that the people that are getting reamed are the American people,” said Rep. Joe Barton, Texas Republican.

House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, Indiana Republican, said the bill uses the word “shall” 3,425 times — which he said signified “a freight train of more mandates, more bureaucracy and more taxes.”

Republicans have yet to coalesce on their own health care bill, but said they’ll demand an open debate when the measure comes to the House floor.

Liberal Democrats said the bill isn’t perfect, but they’re expected to support it in the end.

“It isnt everything I would like, but it is far more than most thought we’d get,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, New York Democrat. “The American people won a round today against two of the most powerful forces in Washington — the health insurance lobby and the status quo.”

Mr. Obama is scheduled to meet Thursday afternoon with members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus in the Roosevelt Room.

Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the meetings were part of a “continued effort by the president to listen to the thoughts and concerns about health care moving forward.”

Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

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