Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) continued working with Republicans on a bipartisan health care bill Wednesday, despite an urgent warning from Senate Democratic leaders that the potential cost of wooing GOP votes could have a devastating effect on Democratic support for the measure.
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told Baucus on Tuesday that any health care reform plan should include a White House-backed, government-run insurance option and that he should abandon a proposal to tax health benefits as a means to finance it. But Baucus insisted Wednesday that taxing benefits and alternatives to a robust public plan remained in play.
Everythings on the table, the Finance chairman said in a line that he repeated throughout the day. By far the better approach is a bipartisan approach to get this moving.
Baucus indicated he was attempting to thread a needle that would keep Republicans who have supported taxing benefits to offset the massive bill on board with a potential bipartisan bill, while softening the language to make Democrats more comfortable.
Baucus calculation, Democratic sources said, is that Democratic leaders and President Barack Obama would be hard-pressed to ignore any measure that attracts bipartisan support if the Finance chairman is actually able to get it done.
Baucus on Wednesday also sought out one-on-one meetings with centrist Democrats who have been cool to a public plan in an attempt to find out what they can support, one senior Democratic aide said.
But despite Baucus insistence that all options remain under consideration, top Democrats and Republicans signaled otherwise. Following a late-afternoon meeting of Finance Democrats, Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who strongly supports the government-run insurance option and opposes taxing health insurance benefits, said there were lots of viable alternatives to pay for the bill.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a senior member of Finance, was more blunt, saying flatly that both taxing benefits and alternatives to a public plan such as a nonprofit health insurance cooperative are virtually dead.
Whether some think it is [viable] or not, it isnt, Rockefeller said, regarding the proposal to tax benefits. He added that the cooperative proposal is also off the table.
Even as Baucus appeared to cling to the idea of taxing benefits, Republicans who met with Reid on Wednesday appeared willing to forgo the revenue-raiser. Republicans have supported this idea in theory but have been hesitant to press for it absent Obamas backing. The president campaigned last year against taxing health insurance benefits, equating it to a levy on the middle class.