WASHINGTON (AP) - The Senate's top Democrat on Thursday accused
Republicans of a strategy of "distortion, distractions and
deception" on health care as he announced a pivotal committee will
vote next week on a comprehensive bill. Republicans said the
legislation still costs too much and expands the reach of
Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Finance Committee will vote
Tuesday on a 10-year, $829-billion proposal that would expand
coverage to 94 percent of eligible Americans-while reducing the
federal deficit. A positive cost report on the legislation
Wednesday from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office marked a turning point for its main author, Finance Chairman Max Baucus,
Immediately after announcing plans for the vote, Reid, D-Nev.,
tore into Republicans Thursday, saying they have no health plan of
their own to offer and are only trying to obstruct.
"There are still those who consider this a zero-sum game, and
will only declare victory if President Obama concedes defeat,"
Reid said. "Let me be clear: Just as Democrats believe in ensuring
quality, affordable care for every American citizens, we believe
equally as strongly that this country has no place for those who
wish for it or its leaders to fail."
He challenged Republicans to be "productive partners rather
than partisan protesters"
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wasted no
time in responding.
He dismissed the good news on costs and coverage as
"irrelevant," saying Democrats would pump up the Baucus bill as
it proceeds through Congress. "The bill ... will never see the
light of day," McConnell promised.
"What matters is that the final bill will cost about $1 trillion, vastly expand the role of government in people's health care decisions-and limit choice," he added.
McConnell said Republicans have offered plenty of ideas, but
they have been ignored by Democrats infatuated with the notion that
they are about to make history.
"Listening to the proponents of the administration's health
care plan, you get the sense that they're more concerned about
their legacies than what the American people actually want,"
McConnell said. "Here's an idea: how about asking the American
people what they want instead?"
Democrats are breathing a sigh of relief over the positive news
on the Baucus plan, but that doesn't mean the proposal has no
The middle-of-the-road plan still leaves about 25 million people
uninsured when fully phased in, in 2019. Of those, nearly 17
million would be U.S. citizens or legal residents. Nearly 50
million U.S. residents now lack coverage. Absent any change, the
budget office projected that would grow to 54 million in 2019.
Congressional Republicans - with the exception of Maine Sen.
Olympia Snowe - panned the Finance effort.
However, former GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole and other
prominent Republicans beyond Capitol Hill have recently spoken out
in favor of a health care overhaul along the lines of the Finance
plan, without specifically endorsing it. That may provide some
cover for Snowe, if she decides to vote for the bill Tuesday.
Finance is the fifth and last of the congressional panels to
debate health care. The Baucus plan has a decided centrist flavor,
shunning any provision for the government to sell insurance in
competition with private industry. That provision, strongly favored
by many Democrats and just as strongly opposed by Republicans, is
still alive in proposed House versions of the legislation.
The Finance bill does not require businesses to offer coverage
to their workers, either, although large firms that do not would be
required to offset the cost of any government subsidies going to
While generally positive about the legislation's effects, the
budget office report contained important caveats.
One noted that the estimate does not include the costs of
proposed payment increases for doctors serving Medicare patients,
roughly $200 billion through 2019. Additionally, a so-called
fail-safe mechanism to hold spending in line could result in cuts
as large as 15 percent in federal subsidies designed to help the
poor afford insurance, CBO said.
Beginning in 2013, Americans would be required to get health
insurance, through an employer or a government program or by buying
it themselves. Failure to obey the requirement would result in
penalties of up to $750 per family.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, is proposing to set those fines aside
in a special fund so those who were penalized could use them later
to buy health insurance. "This turns the penalty into a down
payment on future coverage," Schumer said.
The Finance plan would set up a new insurance marketplace for
consumers to compare and shop for a plan. Federal subsidies would
be provided to millions of individuals and families to help defray
the cost of coverage that would otherwise be out of their reach.
The alternative to government-sold health care, a proposal for
nonprofit co-ops that would compete with private companies, was
judged largely ineffective by budget officials. Such arrangements
"seem unlikely to establish a significant medical presence in many
areas of the country," they wrote.
The legislation also would ban current insurance industry
practices that deny coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical
conditions and restrict companies' ability to charge vastly higher
premiums on the basis of age, gender or other factors.
The measure would be paid for through a variety of tax increases
and spending cuts, including savings of hundreds of billions of
dollars from Medicare, the federal health care program for seniors.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday she is considering
adding a windfall profits tax on health insurance companies to the
House Democratic bill. In the Senate, the Baucus plan would levy a
$6-billion a year tax on the industry, calling it a "fee."
Democratic leaders are hoping to hold votes on health care on
the floor of the House and Senate within a few weeks.
Associated Press writers David Espo, Julie Hirschfeld Davis and
Erica Werner contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)