- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Senate Democrats late Tuesday night said they reached a tentative deal between moderate and liberal ends of their caucus over the controversial public insurance plan, a breakthrough that, if it holds up, could push the health care overhaul legislation through the chamber.

Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, declined to reveal any details of the “broad agreement” to replace the public option Tuesday night but said he was confident that a deal among 10 members at the extremes of their caucus would hold.

Even if the health care overhaul bill that the House passed is vastly different, Tuesday’s deal reached by Senate Democrats increases the prospect that Congress will enact health care reform.

Multiple compromise ideas are to be sent to the Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday, and Mr. Reid said he won’t release details until he gets the agency’s cost analysis.

Ideas discussed earlier Tuesday and thought to be part of the patchwork of provisions sent to CBO, included expanding the Medicare program to allow people ages 55 to 64 to “buy in” to the program; authorizing the Office of Personnel Management - which runs the federal employees’ health care program - to oversee privately run, regional insurance programs; and further tightening insurance industry regulations. One plan includes an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage to children from low-income families, according to one lawmaker exiting the negotiating room.

The compromise would replace the public insurance plan in the Senate bill, which allows states to opt out.

Mr. Reid would say only that the deal would expand choice and provide competition to the insurance industry and that the public option is not “dead.”

Democrats in the room declined to talk about details and said the deal isn’t perfect but a good compromise.

“Do I like it? No. But I’m going to support it to the hilt,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat. “That’s the true measure of a good compromise - neither side really likes what we’ve got, but we’re willing to support it because it moves the ball forward.”

The talks among the five moderates and five liberals, led by Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, began Sunday when it appeared that the public option in the bill, with a chance for states to opt out, didn’t have enough support.

“The public option appears not to be on the table the way it was,” Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat and one of the Senate’s most vocal advocates for the government-run insurance plan, said earlier Tuesday.

The public insurance plan had been the most controversial flash point in the health care reform debate, even among Democrats. While liberals championed it as a tool to keep insurance companies honest, moderate Democrats were worried about the cost and giving government too large a role.

Without the support of all 60 lawmakers in the Democratic caucus, leaders would have to reach out to Republicans, who are uniformly opposed to the public option.

The compromise will draw the legislation further away from the House’s reform bill, putting new hurdles in place when the bills have to be merged. In the House, there are far more liberal Democrats who strongly support the public option.

A spokesman for Mr. Reid said the compromises would accomplish the same goals of the public plan.

“There are a number of options, all of which we believe can be described as a so-called public option,” said spokesman Jim Manley.

Also Tuesday, the Senate defeated a proposal to tighten abortion restrictions in its health care overhaul legislation, as Democrats reached a tentative deal between moderate and liberal ends of their caucus, which were deadlocked over the public insurance plan.

The 54-45 vote to table an amendment to prohibit the use of federal funds for abortions offered by Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, means the Senate bill differs from the House-passed version on one of the debate’s most politically sensitive issues.

The provision, successfully pushed in the House by Rep. Bart Stupak, a pro-life Democrat from Michigan, seeks to prohibit elective abortion coverage in any insurance policy that receives tax subsidies, as well as in the public insurance plan.

Mr. Nelson, who said this week that his support for the bill was contingent on his abortion amendment passing, returned to the public-option negotiations shortly after his amendment failed.

“This makes it harder,” Mr. Nelson said, but pulled back from his earlier threat to support a Republican filibuster against the bill if his abortion amendment lost.

Seven Democrats voted for the abortion amendment, while two Republicans - Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine - joined the majority of Democrats to table it.

With the public insurance plan’s future in the Senate in doubt, Republican support of the overall legislation is back in play as well. Ms. Snowe, the only Republican to support the Democrats’ bills in committee, has been in some of the recent meetings. She told reporters on Tuesday that she is listening to the discussions and waiting to see the final legislative text but can’t support an expansion of Medicaid and likely won’t support a similar expansion of Medicare.

“It would be very expensive. … It’s a huge burden on the states,” she said of allowing people who make up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level to enroll in the Medicaid program.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a moderate Democrat from Arkansas and important swing vote, declined to analyze the proposals on Tuesday, saying, “We’re just looking to see what the final numbers are.” On Wednesday, the Senate is expected to begin debate on an amendment that would allow prescription drugs to be imported into the United States from other countries.

“U.S. consumers are charged the highest prices in the world for FDA-approved brand-name prescription drugs, and that’s just not fair,” said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat and the amendment’s sponsor.

“This legislation has bipartisan support, will put downward pressure on prescription drug prices, and will save the federal government nearly $20 billion over the next decade,” he added.

The amendment faces intense opposition from drug manufacturers, who argue that there is no way the Food and Drug Administration can ensure the safety of foreign-made drugs.

The FDA said in a letter to Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, Tuesday that the legislation tries to address safety measures but that there are still “significant safety concerns” over some products and that “the resulting structure would be logistically challenging to implement and resource intensive.”

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