- The Washington Times - Friday, June 26, 2009

A $1 trillion, bipartisan health care reform bill with a payment plan is within grasp of the Senate Finance Committee as Congress leaves for its recess.

Chairman Sen. Max Baucus said Thursday that his committee has come up with a series of proposals for a reform plan that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office would score at or under $1 trillion over 10 years a number that has become a sticking point for some Republicans and moderate Democrats.

It’s a step closer to President Obama’s plan for comprehensive health care reform. But there is still no bill. The committee has a series of proposals that can be arranged to fall below the magic number. An early draft of the bill was scored at $1.6 trillion.

“We have ways to fully pay for this bill,” Mr. Baucus, Montana Democrat, said. “We’re getting a lot closer to an agreement.”

Mr. Obama said the bill must be fully paid for so that it doesn’t increase the federal debt.

Mr. Baucus declined to talk specifically about how the bill would be paid for, but other attendees of the closed-door meetings said payment methods being considered include raising taxes on top earners a preferred method of Mr. Obama’s, as well as capping the tax break employers get for giving their employees benefits.

The price was reduced at least in part by decreasing proposed subsidies that would help individuals or businesses purchase insurance. But attendees would not get into specific figures.

A bipartisan group of seven committee members who have been heavily involved in the negotiations put out a statement Thursday that the group has made progress.

“As we have been for the last several weeks, we are committed to continuing our work toward a bipartisan bill that will lower costs and ensure quality, affordable care for every American,” the group said in a joint statement.

But some Republicans weren’t quite as optimistic Thursday, leaving finance committee meetings expressing doubt about the CBO figures.

“I’m willing to bet money there’s some gimmickry going on, putting some things off so they don’t get scored at this point,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, said individual portions of a possible bill have been scored and denied any shenanigans.

“The finance committee never has required legislative language to do legislation,” he said, adding that CBO can score plans as long as they have sufficient detail.

Mr. Conrad emphasized that the committee is closer to a plan.

“Very substantial progress has been made in the last 24 hours,” he said. “To get scores back from CBO that show you can do this and have it fully paid for that’s a big deal from where we started this week.”

It’s still not clear if Republicans would agree to the plan being formulated within the finance committee. Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, said it’s too soon to determine if others in her caucus would support it.

The finance committee has been the last likely hope of obtaining a bipartisan bill a stated goal of the White House and both parties in Congress. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee plan has been stalled by partisan bickering. And a House bill, crafted by three committees, appears to have little bipartisan support.

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