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Sens. Baucus and Kyl (AP/Photo by Harry Hamburg)

Slow going

Healthcare | A week of fierce debate and failed amendments point toward another missed Democratic deadline

WASHINGTON-Bringing new meaning to the word slog, the Senate Finance Committee has inched its way through three days of debate on chairman Max Baucus' healthcare reform proposal. And all the rhetoric and amendment votes so far are making two things clear: Democrats will miss another deadline goal for healthcare reform and Republicans will have a nearly impossible time of changing the controversial bill.

With hundreds of amendments on the docket, the committee has debated and voted on just a handful, meaning that they will not vote on the legislation by the end of this week as Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, had originally planned.

Democrats have spent much of this week accusing Republicans of employing delaying tactics while Republicans have countered that a bill of this complexity needs to be examined more carefully.

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Tensions reached the boiling point Thursday when Baucus tried to speed up Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona. "I am not delaying," Kyl shouted back as tempers flared between the two. "I have not filibustered."

The focal point has been Medicare. Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to restore some of the more than $400 billion in cuts the Baucus bill makes to the program. The committee rejected efforts to preserve planned reductions in the Medicare Advantage plan, which injects competition in the system by allowing seniors to select a private insurance program over the government-run Medicare plan.

Republicans have also failed in attempts to require that the bill's entire legislative language be made available for public review 72 hours before the committee votes on the bill. Right now the bill only exists in a draft overview form of slightly more than 200 pages.

In what is sure to be many more Republican defeats, the committee also rejected an amendment that would prohibit the creation of a federal rationing board. The committee dismissed other efforts, such as an attempt to include medical liability reform in the package, without allowing a vote.

And in a tip of the hat to President Barack Obama's often repeated phrase that Americans can keep the insurance they have if they like it, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, offered an amendment that would ensure that Americans could stick with their current coverage. But that was also defeated.

Hatch also has a pending amendment to prohibit federal healthcare funds from being spent on abortions.

"There is still time to press reset and push for a solution that can bring us all together," said Hatch.

Meanwhile, Congressional Budget Office director Douglas Elmendorf, in testimony before the committee, said that the legislation would raise insurance premiums as companies pass the new taxes imposed on them onto their customers. Also the legislation would subject some individuals making below $200,000 annually to additional taxes through penalties for not having insurance or for having a high-value insurance plan, predicted Thomas Barthold, with the Joint Committee on Taxation. 

Kyl, in a theme often repeated by his Republican colleagues on the committee, said the bill as written would create a "tangled web of federally dictated insurance regulations, which would control every aspect of health insurance from covered benefits to permissible premiums."

Republicans are arguing that the bill would centralize the power of medical decisions with bureaucrats, result in higher health insurance premiums, less consumer choice, and the eventual rationing of healthcare.

With all the political posturing from both parties, Karen Ignagni, the president of America's Health Insurance Plans, predicted Thursday that healthcare is an issue that is "going to be decided in December, not in October."

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and the new chairman of the Senate Health Committee, has also stated that the new goal should be to finish healthcare by Christmas. That means more fierce debates and more failed amendments. And if the last three days of drawing battle lines are any indication, don't expect Republican and Democratic members of the Finance Committee to exchange Christmas presents with one another when December does roll around.

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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