- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

UPDATED:

The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee released his long-awaited health care reform bill Wednesday morning — with none of the Republican support backers had sought. The bill also attracted immediate criticism from both liberal and conservative lawmakers.

The $865 billion, 10-year blueprint, released by Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, would require all individuals to carry insurance coverage or pay a fine, ban restrictive insurance company coverage practices, establish insurance cooperatives and put incentives in place to encourage employers to provide insurance. There are significant new fees for insurance companies, which stand to gain millions of new customers from the insurance mandate.

“This is a unique moment in history where we can finally reach an objective so many of us have sought for so long,” Mr. Baucus said. “The Finance Committee has carefully worked through the details of health care reform to ensure this package works for patients, for health care providers and for our economy.”

Mr. Baucus called health care reform a moral obligation.

“This is our opportunity; this is our moment to help fulfill that moral obligation for our kids and grandkids to pass something better,” he said.

Mr. Baucus’ so-called “Gang of Six” worked on the plan for months in hopes of reaching a bipartisan agreement. The plan, once seen as Congress’ best hope for a bipartisan reform bill, so far has no support from the minority party. Mr. Baucus said he plans to continue to work for Republican support up through the markup sessions planned for early next week.

Sens. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican — two of the three GOP Gang of Six members — criticized Senate Democratic leaders and the White House for not giving the group enough time to continue negotiations.

“I’m disappointed because it looks like we’re being pushed aside by the Democratic leadership so the Senate can move forward on a bill that, up to this point, does not meet the shared goals of affordable, accessible health coverage that we set forth when this process began,” Mr. Grassley said.

Mr. Grassley said he still has concerns that the bill would open the door to federal funding of abortions and coverage for illegal immigrants. He also said he wants alternatives to the mandate for individuals to purchase insurance and wants to see tougher medical malpractice reforms in the package.

“On top of all that, there’s no guarantee that a Finance Committee bill, even if it becomes bipartisan, will stay that way after it leaves the committee,” he said, blaming Democratic leaders for not assuring the group that the bill would remain in place when it has to be merged with legislation from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican and the third GOP member of the group, who was widely seen as the most likely Republican to support the bill, said she planned to continue negotiations.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat and another member of the Gang of Six, praised the release of Mr. Baucus’ blueprint but stressed that it’s only a first step.

“While this is a very good start, it is not a finished product,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important that we have an active amendment process both in committee and on the floor of the Senate. Colleagues from both sides of the aisle will have ample opportunity to further improve this already quality proposal.”

Two other Democrats on the Finance Committee, Sens. Bill Nelson of Florida and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, expressed early support for the proposal.

The bill is significantly different from the reform legislation passed in three House committees and the Senate HELP panel, none of which had Republican support. Unlike the House versions of the bill, Mr. Baucus’ plan does not have a government-funded public health insurance option and does not include a tax on upper-income Americans to help finance the reforms.

Almost immediately, Mr. Baucus’ bill came under fire from members at both ends of the political spectrum.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat and member of the Finance Committee, said he would not support the bill because it does not have the public insurance plan and it doesn’t have enough aid for the poor who will have to buy coverage.

“There is no way that I can vote for the Senate package, for a lot of reasons,” he said Tuesday.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, also slammed the legislation.

“This partisan proposal cuts Medicare by nearly a half-trillion dollars, and puts massive new tax burdens on families and small businesses, to create yet another thousand-page, trillion-dollar government program. Only in Washington would anyone think that makes sense, especially in this economy,” Mr. McConnell said.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, said the legislation released Wednesday doesn’t reflect the bipartisan negotiations.

“It will take time to fully study the details of the chairman’s mark, but what few details we already know raise serious concerns,” he said. “Primarily, the true cost of this bill is too high. No matter how many accounting gimmicks are utilized and numbers are fudged, we simply cannot afford what the president and congressional Democrats are proposing.”

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