- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 15, 2009

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is in the middle of a tug of war between moderate and liberal Democrats hoping to modify the health care reform bill he plans to send to the Senate floor later this month.

Liberals say that a recent report from insurance companies hoping to kill reform prove that the unchecked industry needs government competition in the form of a public insurance plan. But moderate Democrats don’t want the costs of a public plan and fear losing the scant Republican support they have by moving the bill too far to the left.

The difficult balancing act of crafting a bill that pleases at least 60 senators falls to Mr. Reid, who began the official task of merging plans from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the Finance Committee on Wednesday. He’s working with White House aides, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who led the HELP bill through committee (CQ wording, he’s not the chairman) and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus.

“There’s going to be some pretty intense lobbying between” lawmakers, said Jim Barnette, partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP and former counsel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Not to mention outside interests. The HELP bill and finance bill, they have a lot in common, but that’s not a one-week exercise.”

Changes are already appearing.

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois told reporters that he expects a tax on high-priced insurance plans, used by the Finance Committee to pay for reform, to be altered before the bill reaches the Senate floor.

Pressured by labor unions strongly opposed to the idea, many Democrats oppose the tax or at least want it to affect fewer plans.

Mr. Reid gave no hint on what the bill he sends to the floor will look like Wednesday, ahead of a meeting with Mr. Baucus, Mr. Dodd and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

“We’re going to work through the process,” he said. “All four of us understand that legislation is the art of compromise, consensus-building, and we’re going to do that. And of course, were it’s obvious that the president himself is going to have something to do with what comes to this bill that is brought to the floor.”

Meanwhile, Democrats plan to introduce a bill this week that would prevent cuts to doctors’ Medicare reimbursement rate, a longtime concern to a key health care reform constituency. Mr. Reid, Mr. Baucus and Mr. Dodd met with nearly a dozen physician groups Wednesday on the proposal, which was introduced by Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and would cost nearly $250 billion over 10 years.

It would not be included in a reform bill but could go a long way to appeasing doctors, who have been lukewarm in their support of the reform plans.

Mr. Baucus, who shepherded the finance panel bill through his committee earlier this week, said it’s too early to predict how much the bills will change but said it will be determined by votes.

“That’s basically up to 60 senators to answer that question,” he told reporters. “They’ll indicate how they’re going to vote this is early, there’s going to be lot of different iterations.”

All but one Republican, Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, remain opposed to the proposals out of concern that they would lead to government interference in health care.

Mrs. Snowe voted for the finance panel bill in committee this week but warned that her vote isn’t assured in the future, possibly giving moderates some weight with Mr. Reid, who has said he wants a bipartisan bill.

But liberals warned that Democrats shouldn’t bend to Mrs. Snowe too much.

Rep. Alan Grayson, Florida Democrat, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee delivered a petition of 87,000 signatures to Mr. Reid on Wednesday proposing that any Democrat who votes against health care reform should lose their leadership title.

“For the last six months, Democrats have been dwelling, debating and hoping for Republican Olympia Snowe to vote on health care reform. Why? Olympia Snowe was not elected president last year,” he said.

Meanwhile, a second insurance company report critical of the reform bill from the Finance Committee emerged Wednesday, threatening to further enrage Democrats who say the industry is trying to stop reform to protect their profits.

A study from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association found that insurance premiums would increase an average of 50 percent in the first five years after the finance panel bill was implemented. It came days after a report from America’s Health Insurance Plans that predicted a similar increase.

“What the insurance industry told us Monday night is: ‘Be prepared. We’re going to raise premiums and we’re going to blame Congress for it,’” Mr. Durbin said. “And frankly we have to way to stop that I think the only way to keep them honest is some kind of public option.”

Democrats are also considering stripping insurers of their antitrust protections, a special provision they received in the 1945 “McCarran-Ferguson” law. Both the House and Senate have separate legislation pending to strip insurance companies of that privilege, and numerous Democrats want to include such a provision in health care reform.

The Senate bill is expected to reach the floor by the end of the month. Republicans, along with several moderate Democrats, demanded that any bill be posted publicly, in its final form, with a cost estimate for 72 hours before any votes. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the body should debate the plan for at least four weeks — the amount of time it devoted to last year’s farm bill.

In the House, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer offered few details to reporters on the process of merging the chamber’s three bills, saying merely, “We are making progress.”

Mr. Hoyer said Democratic leaders are working through a number of issues with individual members concerned about how the bill might have an impact on their districts but did not elaborate. He said House Democrats “feel strongly” about including a government-run health care plan.

• Kara Rowland contributed to this report.

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