- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A prominent Senate Democrat said Tuesday he would vote against a compromise health care reform proposal because it does not include a public insurance plan, putting a new hurdle in the way of what was supposed to be Congress’ best shot at bipartisan reform.

West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said Tuesday he will oppose the proposal from Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, unless dramatic changes are made to the legislation. Mr. Rockefeller cited in particular the absence of a taxpayer-financed public insurance plan to compete with private insurers.

Mr. Baucus’ proposal, expected to be released Wednesday, is based on months of discussions among a bipartisan group of senators dubbed the “gang of six” and is widely viewed as the last chance to fashion a plan that could attract significant GOP support. Four other congressional panels have passed reform bills, relying exclusively on Democratic votes to pass.

“Hope springs eternal that one or two or three [Republicans] will be there [Wednesday]. In the event that’s not the case … we’ll just keep working,” Mr. Baucus said Tuesday.

It’s still unclear whether the plan fashioned by Mr. Baucus will even be supported by Republican members of the “gang of six.” Sens. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming have been reluctant to talk publicly about where they stand.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the top Republican on the panel, said Tuesday that the group’s work isn’t complete, and he signaled he’s not ready to sign on to the bill.

“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 for affordable, accessible health coverage that we set forth when this process began,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Baucus said that he expects to have Republicans on board by the time the panel takes a formal vote, even if they don’t sign on immediately.

“I think by the time we vote the bill out [of the Finance Committee], there will be Republican support,” he said.

If the bill has no Republican support, Mr. Baucus can only afford to lose one Democratic vote if he hopes to get the bill out of committee.

Liberal Senate Democrats, leery of the concessions to Republicans, could now pose a new obstacle to passage. In the House, leaders face a similar struggle between appeasing conservative Blue Dog Democrats who don’t like the high cost of the measure and liberal Democrats who want an expansive reform plan.

Mr. Rockefeller said he will oppose the bill because it creates nonprofit cooperatives instead of the full-fledged public insurance plan, and because of concerns about Medicaid and affordability. Other Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee have expressed skepticism as well.

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said earlier this week that the emerging Baucus proposal doesn’t do enough to offer Americans choice on health insurance. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has said he wants a strong competitor to private insurers in the bill.

The Baucus blueprint includes numerous provisions Republicans favor, including medical malpractice reform, a provision eliminating the state barriers to buying insurance, and insurance cooperatives instead of the public plan.

Mr. Baucus and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, have said the public option doesn’t have the 60 votes required to defeat an expected Republican-led filibuster in the Senate.

Some Democrats have suggested they try to pass health care reform, including the public option, through a procedural method called reconciliation. The move would cut off the chance for a Republican filibuster and allow the bill to pass with 51 votes in the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that reconciliation is still an option.

“I hope we don’t have to do this, but if we can’t get the 60 votes we need, then we’ll have no alternative but to do reconciliation,” the Nevada Democrat said. “I strongly favor a bipartisan approach.”

Meanwhile Tuesday, proponents of reform received further ammunition that costs are soaring for average consumers.

The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation released a study finding that average premiums for employer-sponsored health insurance for families rose to $13,375 this year. Employers paid $9,860, and employees paid $3,515 on average.

That marks a 5 percent increase in the premium rate, well above the 3.1 percent wage increase over the same period.

Since 1991, the cost of the average premium for a company-provided family health insurance plan has risen 131 percent, the survey found.

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