Baucus’s Bipartisan Health Care Plan May Lack Democratic Support

September 15, 2009 - 5:18 AM
Following weeks of closed-door negotiations with two other Democratic senators and three Republicans, Sen. Max Baucus plans to unveil his health care reform bill Wednesday, and he hopes Republicans are with him. But what about his fellow Democrats?
Max Baucus, Charles Grassley, health care reform

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., left, and the committee's ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, talk on Capitol Hill in this April 2, 2009 file photo. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Washington (AP) - Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus has been trying for months to write a health care bill that could win Republican support. If he succeeds, he may find it's fellow Democrats he has to worry about.
 
Baucus, D-Mont., said Monday that "we're getting very close" to finalizing sweeping health legislation to enact President Barack Obama's priorities of extending coverage to most of the 50 million uninsured and holding down spiraling health care costs.
 
Following weeks of closed-door negotiations with two other Democratic senators and three Republicans, Baucus plans to unveil his bill Wednesday, and he hopes Republicans are with him. Such a bargain could mark a turning point for Obama's top domestic priority.
 
At the same time, Baucus said the bipartisan talks could continue even as his Finance panel begins its formal bill-drafting and voting session next week. The negotiators meet again Tuesday.
 
"It's not just tomorrow or the next day," said Baucus. "We're going to keep working."
 
That work will have to include nailing down support from the Democrats on his committee who haven't been involved in the negotiating sessions. Several of them offered criticism after a closed-door meeting with Baucus Monday night.
 
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he was concerned not enough financial help was being provided to help lower-income people buy coverage. A plan to offer tax subsidies only after a family has spent 13 percent of their income on health care costs could leave some shouldering hefty tabs, Wyden said. "I personally think there's a lot of heavy lifting still to do," Wyden said.
 
More generous subsidies would mean a more expensive bill -- something Republicans oppose.
 
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he thought some of the fees Baucus intends to level on sectors of the medical industry to pay for the bill were excessive, though he declined to say which ones.
 
"It's a starting point. I have differences still," Kerry said, adding that he thought the Senate would pass a good health bill in the end.
 
The negotiators pared the cost of their 10-year coverage plan to under $880 billion, and also reported progress Monday on several issues, including health insurance for the poor, restrictions on federal funding for abortions, a verification system to prevent illegal immigrants from getting benefits, and ways to encourage alternatives to malpractice lawsuits.
 
The three Republicans involved in the talks -- Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Olympia Snowe of Maine -- are under intense pressure from leaders of their own party, some of whom have publicly dismissed Baucus' framework as a Democrat's plan. Baucus may not be able to get any of them to agree. But all three have invested much time and energy in the talks, and Baucus seems to have a chance of persuading at least Snowe.
 
Baucus' plan would require all Americans to get health insurance, either through an employer, a government program or on their own. New consumer protections would prohibit onerous insurance practices, such as denying coverage because of a prior health problem or charging more to those who are sick.
 
Even if Baucus can't get Republican support, the plan already reflects some major GOP priorities. For example, Baucus opted not to include a government insurance plan to compete with private carriers. He's including nonprofit, member-owned cooperatives instead, something several liberals on his committee dislike.
 
The action is being closely watched by Democrats in the House, many of whom want to see the direction the Senate Finance Committee takes before moving forward with floor votes on their bill, which three House committees approved in July.
 
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Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.