- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Republicans all but shut the door on a bipartisan health care reform deal as debate opened Tuesday in the Senate Finance Committee with immediate changes favored by Democrats and at least one Republican.

Chairman Max Baucus made $50 billion worth of modifications to his 10-year reform proposal, bringing it to $900 billion. In response to Republican complaints of frivolous taxes, the Montana Democrat eliminated low-cost medical products under $100, such as Q-tips and contact lens solution, from a new medical device tax.

At his fellow Democrats’ suggestions, he also halved the penalty imposed on families who refuse to buy insurance, increased tax credits for low-income people to buy insurance and increased the threshold at which insurance plans would be taxed.

Trying to keep Democrats happy and win over at least one Republican, Mr. Baucus said he crafted a plan more focused on pragmatism than idealism.

“The mark before us today is a balanced, common-sense plan that takes the best ideas from both sides,” he said. “It’s designed to get the 60 votes that it needs to pass.”

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, widely seen as the most likely Republican to vote for the proposal and possibly the all-important 60th vote, called the plan a “good starting point … but we are far from the finish line.”

When asked about Ms. Snowe’s importance to the panel, Mr. Baucus said only that “all senators are important.”

Republicans signaled early in the day that a hard-sell effort for their support will be needed.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, called the proposal a “stunning assault on liberty” and other Republicans blamed Democratic leaders for stymieing a bipartisan negotiating team’s progress.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the top Republican on the committee, blamed Democratic Senate leaders and the White House for rushing the process and hampering efforts to reach a bipartisan compromise.

“It seems that the White House and the [Senate Democratic] leadership from the beginning were really never going to give us time to get it right,” Iowa’s Mr. Grassley said.

“Hopefully it’s not ended,” he said of the bipartisan talks. “But for right now it is.”

The Finance Committee, which began health care meetings in mid-2008, has held 17 discussions or hearings on the subject and more than 50 meetings between part or all of the committee, according to an aide.

Democrats suggested a series of changes, from small details to major sticking points, such as the public option.

“This is a good start,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “But I also believe there are things we must do to make it better.”

Mr. Schumer and at least two other Democrats on the panel have made it clear that they want the public option in the plan, but haven’t yet said they won’t vote for a plan without it. The proposal would create insurance co-operatives instead of the controversial public insurance plan, but there are amendments to insert a public plan.

Mr. Baucus will have to balance the bill to keep liberal Democrats on board, all the while trying to attract a few Republican votes.

Six members of the committee - three Republicans and three Democrats - had been meeting for three months to try to craft a plan. But in late July top Democrats and the White House said they must wrap up those talks by Sept. 15 or face a Democrats-only plan.

Mr. Grassley, who has a long record of working with Mr. Baucus and was part of the group, praised the Montana Democrat for his attempt to work with Republicans.

Republicans on the panel also spoke out against provisions in the legislation that they said would not do enough to prevent illegal immigrants from benefiting from the reform plans or sending taxpayer dollars to funding abortions.

Mr. Baucus has said he expects to vote the bill out of committee by the end of the week.

Meanwhile Tuesday, Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf told the panel that the CBO, which provides nonpartisan financial analysis of bills, would not be able to complete its final analysis on the health plan until about two weeks after the committee votes on a bill.

Clearly frustrated by the time lag, Mr. Baucus asked the group to provide a preliminary estimate more quickly.

Many lawmakers on the panel have stressed that they want to see a CBO analysis before the vote on the plan.

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