House Democrats Aim to Reframe Debate on Health Care Bill

September 15, 2009 - 11:05 AM
House Democratic leaders summoned a panel of friendly witnesses to a public hearing on Capitol Hill where they solicited testimonials aimed at dispelling opposition to their legislation.
Washington (AP) - House Democrats tried Tuesday to reframe the debate over their health overhaul bill as negotiators in the Senate urgently sought elusive bipartisan compromise a day ahead of their planned bill release.
 
House Democratic leaders summoned a panel of friendly witnesses to a public hearing on Capitol Hill where they solicited testimonials aimed at dispelling opposition to their legislation. The House Democrats' bill took a beating during the August recess after passing three committees without a single Republican vote.
 
"Is Medicare a public program? Is Medicaid a public program?" Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., rhetorically asked one witness, political scientist Jacob Hacker of Yale University.
 
"Then can you explain to me why there are so many people who are on those programs who seem to be concerned" about Democratic plans to introduce a new government-run insurance program to compete with private insurers? Obey asked.
 
"Could it be that they've simply been misled ... by special interests?" Obey asked.
 
Hacker called that a "plausible explanation."
 
Later Tuesday, House Democrats were to meet with top presidential adviser David Axelrod as they seek to regain momentum and quiet concerns in their own caucus about for President Barack Obama's top domestic priority. The top-to-bottom reshaping of the nation's $2.5 trillion health care system is meant to bring down costs and cover the 50 million uninsured.
 
Meanwhile, all eyes were on the Senate Finance Committee. Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., intends to release a bill Wednesday after months of closed-door talks, and he's still holding out hope for a bipartisan compromise. If that's achieved it would be the only bipartisan bill out of five proposals in the House and Senate and could mark a significant turning point for Obama's health care agenda.
 
Because the Finance Committee's moderate makeup is similar to that of the Senate as a whole, the committee's proposal could form the basis for legislation that could gain majority support in that chamber. It remained unclear Tuesday whether Baucus would be able to claim the support of the three Republican senators in his small negotiating group when he releases his bill. Even if they aren't on board Wednesday Baucus said he'll still hold out hope to get their support next week when his committee begins amending and voting on the bill.
 
Baucus and his negotiating team were meeting again Tuesday evening.
 
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.
 
The co-op compromise also came under attack at the House Democrats' forum Tuesday, with several lawmakers and witnesses attacking it as untested and unworkable. Many House liberals are holding out for a straight-up public plan, though many senators believe such a plan could not get through the Senate.
 
Baucus and his negotiators have pared the cost of their 10-year coverage plan to under $880 billion, and also reported progress 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.
 
Even if Baucus does get them to agree he'll have to win over the Democrats on his committee who haven't been involved in the negotiations. Several of them offered criticism after a closed-door meeting with Baucus Monday night.
 
"I personally think there's a lot of heavy lifting still to do," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., saying he was concerned about whether the plan would really produce affordable insurance options for lower-income Americans.
 
Baucus' plan -- which tracks closely with the principals Obama laid out in a speech to Congress last week -- 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.
 
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Associated Press writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.