WASHINGTON – His fellow Democrats shuddered and Republicans sneered when Sen. Max Baucus unveiled legislation to remake the health care system. Now, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee gamely insists that it can pass the Senate, core provisions intact.
That’s precisely what many Democrats are hoping to avoid, and not even an attempt to choreograph a display of unity after a closed-door meeting on Thursday could obscure it.
Inside, according to numerous officials, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio rejected Baucus’ proposal for non-profit cooperatives to compete with private industry in selling insurance. He urged a liberal-backed alternative in which the government would offer competition.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York spoke in less than favorable terms about another of Baucus’ key ideas, a tax on high-cost insurance policies.
Concerns were voiced, too, that the federal subsidies are too skimpy to do much good for hard-pressed, middle-income families who would be under a requirement to purchase insurance. That was a point raised earlier in the week by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, a member of the committee Baucus chairs.
“You look at the bill and the text of the legislation legally bars more than 200 million people from having any choice at all, let alone what (health insurance) members of Congress get,” he said.
Inside the meeting, the majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, refrained.
But that wasn’t the case on Wednesday, when he learned that his home state would be disadvantaged under a provision in Baucus’ bill relating to Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor.
An unhappy majority leader, who faces re-election next year, quickly issued a statement saying he had a commitment from Baucus that the bill would be changed quickly. “Let me be very clear, I will not bring a health insurance reform bill to the Senate floor that is not good for Nevada,” he said.
The Baucus plan “needs more than just a few tweaks,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, a member of the Finance Committee.
Then there is Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, second in seniority behind Baucus on the panel. He pre-empted his chairman’s announcement by a day, telling reporters, “The way it is now there is no way I can vote for the package.”
A political moderate by instinct, Baucus made concession after concession in bipartisan talks that stretched on for months.
Some were aimed at reassuring moderate Democrats who may well hold the balance of power when the Senate votes in the fall. The party has 59 seats in the Senate, and the Massachusetts Legislature is in the process of voting on a change in state law that will permit Gov. Deval Patrick to appoint a 60th to replace the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Even with 60 votes and one or two Republicans who have yet to appear, Reid will have little margin for error if he attempts to pass legislation that can overcome a GOP filibuster.
An alternative strategy, which calls for a bill that can pass by majority vote, would strengthen the hand of liberals. But it would also limit what could be included in the legislation.
Other concessions Baucus made — more baffling to fellow Democrats — were part of a monthslong courtship designed to attract support from Republicans.
So far, he has none, although Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine is widely believed ready to sign on in the near future.
For the GOP, the sight of Baucus standing alone on Wednesday as he unveiled his legislation was all they could have asked for.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the party leader, worked for months to dissuade fellow Republicans from reaching across party lines. Having succeeded, he accused Baucus of authoring a “partisan proposal” that would raise taxes and reduce Medicare spending.
While Democrats demanded changes, Baucus projected confidence.
“I am guessing that by and large there will be a couple of changes. But I don’t think there will be any changes in the core provisions of the bill,” Baucus said in an Associated Press phone interview in Montana.
Asked about Republicans, he said, “They didn’t stand with me yesterday, but there will be some Republican support. I’m not sure how much.”
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