- The Washington Times - Friday, September 18, 2009

A day after dumping on a health care reform proposal from Sen. Max Baucus, Democrats rallied to collect 60 votes to pass an altered bill and Republicans strategized to change it.

Democrats prepared amendments to significantly reduce the plan’s main revenue raiser: the tax rate on insurance companies, a provision some fear would be passed on to the insured. They also hoped to offer changes to allow more Americans access to the exchange and ensure continued coverage for seniors on Medicare Advantage.

Republicans, meanwhile, angered by the White House pushing them aside, pledged to stick together on amendments but said they hadn’t defined yet what they would be.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican negotiator in the “gang of six” accused the White House of backing away from its pledge for bipartisanship by cutting off debate in the Finance Committee and accused President Obama of using him for politics.

“There’s some things that the president has said since [July] that I took very personally,” Mr. Grassley said. “He gave some speeches during August in which he was associating me with efforts to make this a political document.”

Democrats emerged from a member meeting largely united to pass health care reform and place a bill on the president’s desk by Christmas.

But they offered few details on how exactly they would combine the two significantly different plans - one of which has broad liberal support and the other that so far has lukewarm support from moderates - and generate at least one Republican vote to get enough for passage. With the recent death of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Democrats have 59 seats.

“There’s a way of doing this. You can bring people together. It takes time,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat and new chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. “As I said in there, We have a team. Every team has one leader, one quarterback. Our quarterback is [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid. We elected him to that position. He will decide how this is done. And I said, ‘We will back him on his decision.’ ”

But Mr. Reid is not yet revealing his game plan.

He said Wednesday that he was pleased with the Finance Committee bill and later sent a message through the social networking site Twitter indicating he hoped to ease the state Medicaid payments required in the package.

“He intends to work with the White House, HELP and finance committees and other members of the caucus to put together a bill that has the best chance to get 60 votes to break the expected Republican filibuster,” said his spokesman, Jim Manley.

But not all Democrats are on board yet, highlighting the significant hurdles they may need to overcome.

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio warned that he would have a “very hard” time voting for a bill without a public option and estimated that 80 percent of other Democrats support the measure as well. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia said he won’t vote for the plan as it’s written now, largely because it doesn’t have a public option and over fear that substantial fees on insurance companies being passed on to consumers.

Mr. Baucus did get a show of support Thursday from four moderates: Democratic Sens. Ben Nelson and Claire McCaskill, independent Sen. Joe Lieberman and Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe.

“Each of us has an obligation to put aside partisan views and to consider how health care reform addresses the needs and challenges faced by individual citizens and our economy as a whole,” the senators said in a joint statement. “While we each have outstanding concerns we wish to see addressed, Sen. Baucus has taken an important and critical step forward with this legislation, which is budget neutral and reduces future health care costs according to [the Congressional Budget Office].”

The Finance Committee will mark up its bill next week and all proposed amendments are expected Friday evening.

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