- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The last congressional panel standing in the way of floor votes on President Obama’s health care reform plan is set to take up its reform proposal Tuesday, setting the stage for a tug of war between liberals who say the bill doesn’t have teeth and conservatives who say it would lead to government-run health care.

The 23 members of the Senate Finance Committee have introduced a slew of amendments - 267 from Democrats and 292 from Republicans - to the 10-year, $856 billion plan that Chairman Max Baucus hopes to pass out of committee by week’s end. As of Monday, Mr. Baucus already has made some of the proposed changes, agreeing to make insurance coverage more affordable for low- to middle-income individuals.

“It’s the wild, wild West,” said Jim Barnette, partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP and former general counsel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “It’s entirely appropriate that Max Baucus is from Montana, because he needs to be prepared for a shootout.”

The committee was once seen as the panel most likely to produce a bipartisan reform bill. But months of negotiations between three Republicans and three Democrats resulted in a compromise that no one but Mr. Baucus, Montana Democrat, ended up supporting when it was introduced last week.

Democrats hope the bill makes it through committee with changes that would make health care more affordable. Republicans hope to limit the role of government in health care and introduce further medical-malpractice reform, but some wouldn’t be disappointed if the bill didn’t make it through at all.

Mr. Baucus has said he’s open to any compromise so long as it ensures affordable coverage for all Americans, holds insurance companies accountable and doesn’t add to the bill’s total cost.

But that doesn’t mean the markup session won’t get messy.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat and most vocal skeptic of the Baucus proposal, has offered amendments that would set up a public insurance plan, called the Consumer Choice Health Plan, similar to the one proposed in other congressional committees.

Other proposals from Democrats include expanding Medicare to Americans ages 54 to 65, lowering the thresholds to receive government subsidies and exempting high-risk professions from the insurance excise tax.

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, has proposed more generous affordability credits for the poor and paying for it by taxing Internet gambling revenue.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, Maine Republican, has proposed a “trigger” idea - a provision that would give insurance companies a few years to lower health care costs or face the creation of a public insurance plan. It’s likely to be strongly considered in the committee because she’s the most obvious and likely Republican to vote for it.

One of the more interesting amendments is a proposal from Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch that would offer relief from an excise tax on any state that begins with the letter “U.” He represents the state of Utah.

Sen. John Ensign of Nevada has introduced a proposal to change every use of the word “fee” in the bill to “tax,” signaling how Republicans plan to attack the proposal.

Over the weekend, Mr. Obama denied that the new requirement that all Americans have to buy insurance or face a penalty would amount to a new tax. But the proposal indeed refers to the penalty as a “tax” and it would be due as part of individuals’ federal taxes.

Whatever the committee passes will have to be merged with a bill from the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee before it can go to a full vote on the Senate floor. The two pieces of legislation are likely to be significantly different, with the health committee bill more liberal than Finance’s plan.

“What passes the Senate will resemble very closely what the final bill will look like,” said Igor Volsky, health care researcher at the liberal Center for AmericanProgress Action Fund.

Mr. Baucus’ work with a bipartisan group has angered some liberal Democrats, who say it was all for nothing.

“It seems that Baucus not only met them halfway,” Mr. Volsky said, “but many progressives would argue that he kept on walking, and none of the Republicans supported the mark.”

Failure by the panel could stall Mr. Obama’s legislative agenda on Capitol Hill for months.

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