WASHINGTON-The Senate Finance Committee hit the brakes on the health care reform train Wednesday after the Congressional Budget Office estimated a price tag of $1.6 trillion for the new health care bill, which would break President Obama's commitment to a budget-neutral bill.
Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, announced that the Finance Committee would not consider funding of the health care bill until after Congress' Fourth of July recess. Baucus said he wanted to take some time to reduce the cost of the bill by at least $600 billion and set up complete funding, which will include tax increases and Medicare spending cuts.
"Sen. Baucus wants to ensure the committee gets the mark right and will take the time to do exactly that," an aide told The Hill. "He will continue to work with members on both sides of the aisle and remains confident we'll have a budget-neutral bill."
This slowdown does not yet derail the Democrats' summer timetable on health care reform, but it is a small victory for Republicans, who maintain that Democrats are moving too fast to push the incomplete bill through-which many say is the case with a parallel bill the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee is drafting, sponsored by Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who is absent while undergoing treatment for brain cancer.
On the first day of opening statements on the 600-page bill in the HELP Committee, Republicans formed stiff opposition to the legislation. They say the Kennedy bill as it stands now would only help one third of the approximately 47 million Americans who are currently uninsured, and even a reduced cost of $1 trillion is too much to pay for such an incomplete plan.
"I believe the bill we are dealing with is so flawed we should start over," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "This is not a bi-partisan bill."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the proceedings a "joke."
Democrats repeatedly stressed the plight of millions of uninsured Americans and said they cannot waste this opportunity to extend the reach of health care to everyone.
"Health care should be a right of all people," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. And with the average American spending about $7,900 on health care annually, he added, Congress cannot afford to wait.
Republicans applauded the slowdown in the Finance Committee as a step toward reaching a reformed bipartisan bill.
Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who was chosen by Kennedy to be the interim chairman of the HELP committee during the hearing process, said he wanted to end up with legislation that has support from Republicans.