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Sen. Max Baucus (Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci)

Bill-writing time

Healthcare | All eyes this week will be focused on the Senate Finance Committee and its unveiling of a draft bill

WASHINGTON-Congressional pep talks, controversial heckling, and a march on Washington took center stage during last week's Capitol Hill resumption of the healthcare debate. While that may have meant good drama for television and talk radio, such theatrics will give way this week to the more mundane, business-as-usual, sausage-making reality of bill writing. All eyes will be focused on the Senate Finance Committee, which is finally set to unveil its healthcare overhaul draft.

This will be the third and final healthcare bill. A bill in the House has already passed several key committees, while the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved its own version this summer. Yet many observers expect the Senate Finance Committee bill to become the legislation with the most traction. In other words, it likely will become Obamacare. Why?

Throughout their lengthy bill-writing process, Finance Committee members at least maintained some semblance of bipartisanship. Three Republicans are on the committee's "Gang of Six" working group, which has taken the lead in drafting the proposal. Both the House and Senate health committees have shut out Republican voices throughout the process and neither bill is expected to get total support from even moderate members of the Democratic Party.

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Both the House and Senate health committees' versions shut out Republican voices throughout the process and neither bill is expected to get total support from even moderate members of the Democratic Party.

"It's not going to pass," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., of the House version. "The only thing that has a prospect of passing is what is happening in the Senate, in the Finance Committee. And the proposal that we are developing is fully paid for."

The Finance Committee is tasked with outlining exactly how the federal government will pay for package, and members boasted on Monday that they had cut total costs to under $880 billion. But Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats, such as members of the House's Blue Dogs coalition, will be pushing to reduce that total even more.

"We are working to bring this process to closure over the next week or so," Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus said Monday after a closed-door meeting of the "Gang of Six," during which lawmakers said they discussed restrictions on abortion coverage, medical malpractice, illegal immigration, and benefits for the poor.

Still bipartisan cooperation in the Finance Committee has been tenuous at best, with the push by Democrats for a government-run insurance option causing the most friction.

"I've urged the president to take the public option off the table," Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and a member of the "Gang," said Sunday on the CBS's Face the Nation. "It's universally opposed by Republicans."

Even conservative Democrats, such as Sen. Mary Landrieu from Louisiana, are skeptical of the public option. "Many of us believe . . . that it will undermine the private insurance system," Landrieu said Sunday on ABC's This Week.

The two other Republicans in the "Gang of Six," Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Michael Enzi of Wyoming, are showing even greater reluctance than Snowe to back publicly any element of the plan so far outlined. The proposed expansion of Medicaid is among their top concerns.

Baucus already has released an 18-page framework for the committee's healthcare plans.

Its elements include an insurance mandate requiring individuals to purchase coverage, the creation of nonprofit healthcare cooperatives, an expansion of Medicaid to those who fall at or under 133 percent of the poverty line, and tax credits to individuals between 134 percent and 300 percent of the federal poverty line. It also includes allowing individuals to buy health insurance across state lines-a proposal backed by Republicans.

Despite the months of negotiations, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a member of the Finance Committee but not the "Gang of Six," said on Fox News Sunday that he still does "not believe they're going to have Republican support on this kind of bill."

If that is the case, Baucus has signaled that Democrats will go at it alone.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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