- The Washington Times - Friday, June 5, 2009

The top Senate Democrats writing a health care reform plan and President Obama appear aligned in support of a public, or government-run insurance option, setting up a potential standoff with Senate Republicans who say they won’t back such a measure.

Sen. Max Baucus, one of the chief Democrats writing a health care reform plan as chairman of the Finance Committee, said Thursday that he doesn’t anticipate the Senate passing a bill without the public, or government-run, insurance option.

“I think a bill that passes the Senate will have some version of a public option,” Mr. Baucus, Montana Democrat, said after a meeting between commitee members from both parties, but suggested there could be restrictions that would limit the government’s role.

The public plan would be a program similar to Medicare that would cover all Americans who did not have private insurance. Republicans say they still hope for a bipartisan bill, but that those hopes are fading quickly if it contains a public option. They argue that a public plan would tip the market and drive private industry out of business. Proponents of the public plan say it would provide insurance to more Americans and that private insurers would remain intact.

“Our caucus is very, very much against a public option,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, ranking Republican on the Finance Committee. “It’s kind of a litmus test sort of thing.”

The public option is the most significant lightening rod in the debate. But there is little agreement over how to pay for it or whether it will include a mandate requiring all Americans to have coverage.

Mr. Obama came out with his first guidance on the particulars of a reform bill Wednesday in a letter to Mr. Baucus and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, saying he “strongly” believed in a public option and was in favor of a mandate as long as it had exclusions for the poor and small businesses. But he also stressed that he wanted a bipartisan bill.

Mr. Grassley, Iowa Republican, said the letter did not help bipartisanship.

“It wasn’t helpful,” he said. “Words make a difference and that made a difference.”

Mr. Kennedy, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, the other panel drafting a reform plan, is also in favor of a government-sponsored plan. A draft proposal circulated from him included a mandate that everyone carry health insurance coverage. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, is managing the committee’s work in his friend’s absence.

Senate Republicans are already forming their defense against a public plan.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has used much of his floor time this week to reinforce the idea that a public plan will lead to government-run health care for everyone.

“Eventually, Americans would be stuck with government-run health care whether they like it or not,” he said. “That’s when the worst scenario would take shape, with Americans subjected to bureaucratic hassles, hours spent on hold waiting for a government service rep to take a call, restrictions on care, and, yes, lifesaving treatment and lifesaving surgeries denied or delayed.”

Senators pointed out Thursday that they are working under a tight deadline. Mr. Obama said if a bill isn’t passed by August, it’s not going to happen.

That’s prompted outside interest groups to take action. Organizing for America, Mr. Obama’s political organization, is hosting community events in homes and public venues across the country this weekend to rally support.

Attendees, which will number in the “tens of thousands,” according to organizers, will watch a prepared video message from Mr. Obama and discuss plans to reach out to members of Congress.

“Health care costs are crippling the budgets of families, individuals, businesses and governments and we will never fix our economy or get our fiscal house in order until we fix our health care system,” said Organizing for America Executive Director Mitch Stewart. “If all this sounds urgent, it is, and that is why OFA is kicking off this grass-roots activity in all 50 states to get health care reform done and get it done now.”

Other groups, including Health Care for America Now and Families USA, are encouraging their members and associates to attend the events Saturday and planning some of their own for later in the summer.

Health Care for America Now, an organization composed of the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, MoveOn.org, NAACP and other groups and unions, is planning a massive lobbying day on June 25. The group favors a public plan but is against taxing employer benefits. The Service Employees Union International has an event planned for June 24.

• Jennifer Haberkorn can be reached at jhaberkorn@washingtontimes.com.old.

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