Health Care Hits Hiccups; Timeline Tripped Up

Posted June 17, 2009 at 6:05pm

The first crack in President Barack Obama’s ambitious schedule for health care reform emerged Wednesday as Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) postponed the markup of his panel’s legislation because he needs more time to develop a consensus.

Several Democrats and Republicans said after a closed-door Finance Committee meeting that it would be almost impossible to begin marking up a bill next Tuesday — as previously scheduled — absent a complete score from the Congressional Budget Office and panel members’ agreement on key details. Obama has demanded that Congress approve a health care bill no later than Oct. 15.

Baucus remains committed to meeting that timetable while still crafting a bill that can garner significant GOP support. But Finance Democrats indicated that there is still a divide, even among themselves, on several important issues, including what kind of government-run, public plan to insert in the bill and how to pay for reform as a whole.

“We’re still not up to crunch time in the sense that we don’t have the specific details. A lot of the devil is in the details,— Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.), who sits on the Finance Committee, said Wednesday.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee began marking up its health care bill as scheduled Wednesday, despite it still being incomplete and coming in with an initial price tag of more than $1 trillion. HELP and Finance had originally planned to finish marking up their bills this month, followed by merger negotiations just after the July Fourth recess.

But Baucus, determined to produce bipartisan legislation that costs less than $1 trillion and is deficit-neutral, announced that next Tuesday’s scheduled markup would be delayed — most likely until after July Fourth. That delay casts doubt on the Senate’s ability to clear a bill before the Congress adjourns for the August recess.

“It’s too early at this point to know when we’ll be ready. I want to make sure that we have a complete package,— Baucus told reporters. “We’re working hard to get that put together. … We’re going to have a markup when we’re ready, but we’re not yet ready.—

The House still appears on track to approve its health care legislation by the end of July. However, delays in that chamber are possible should conservative and centrist Democrats balk at the bill being written by Democratic leaders.

[IMGCAP(1)]In addition to disagreements over policy — including on the public plan and a pay-or-play component that would affect businesses — the downshift in the pace toward next week’s previously scheduled Senate markup appears to have been influenced over the cost of reform and how to pay for it.

In particular, the preliminary cost of the HELP bill — more than $1 trillion — caused many Democrats, including Baucus, to take a second look at where the Finance bill was headed. Baucus decided to have the CBO score the full legislation before pressing forward with a markup.

“These numbers are not all in yet. We have to wait until we get some of these numbers as Senators make up their minds on policy,— Baucus said. “So, they’re just taking time here.—

Republicans, who have complained recently about the pace of negotiations, were pleased to see Baucus take a step back.

The GOP, in addition to being adamantly opposed to a government-run insurance option, are concerned with the Democrats’ plans to require that businesses provide health coverage to their employees or pay a tax to the government. Republicans are also concerned with the cost of health care reform and how the Democrats propose to pay for it.

But this week, GOP Senators added to their rhetorical quiver their displeasure with the Democrats’ intention to clear the bill through the Senate by the end of July. Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who sits on Finance, complimented Baucus for slowing things down.

“I think that [Baucus] appreciates that we’re moving this very complicated, difficult subject along in a very fast pace and that everybody has been asking for a little more time,— Kyl said. “I don’t think we ever could have [reached bipartisan consensus] under the time frame that he originally laid out.—

Democratic leaders on HELP decided to have the CBO score a bill that was incomplete, while pressing ahead with its markup despite having not yet come to agreement on some major issues. Baucus, while still pushing to find common ground with Finance Republicans, is also working hard to satisfy the committee’s Democrats.

Baucus has worked closely with Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for several months to fashion a bipartisan compromise. But the continuing effort to bridge the partisan divide on the contentious aspects of health care policy is not the only hold up in reaching consensus on a final bill.

Finance Democrats must also come to an agreement among themselves.

“What we’re wrestling with are sort of some of the larger issues — the frame work,— Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said. “This is big and complicated stuff. People need to be able to digest the choices if you going to build a legitimate consensus.—