A bipartisan healthcare plan? 'Yes we can,' say former Senate leaders.

Democrat Tom Daschle and Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker put forth an alternative proposal Wednesday.

By , Staff writer

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    From left to right: Former Senate leaders Democrat Tom Daschle and Republicans Bob Dole and Howard Baker say Congress can find a bipartisan solution to healthcare reform.
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Three former Senate leaders on Wednesday announced a bipartisan plan for healthcare reform – a counterpoint to the first Senate markup of healthcare legislation, which fell out along sharply partisan lines.

The bipartisan framework includes a requirement for all Americans to purchase health insurance, with a refundable tax credit to offset the cost for lower-income families. The plan offers tax credits for small businesses that offer health benefits and levies fees for employers who do not.

Sens. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota, Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, and Howard Baker (R) of Tennessee no longer serve in the Senate, lead their party caucus, or face voters. (Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine, the second Democrat on the team, resigned to serve as special envoy to the Middle East in the Obama administration.)

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But the logistics of getting to a bipartisan outcome – typically a must to pass major legislation in the Senate – hasn’t changed. It requires flexibility from all sides.

“We are facing a critical moment in our nation’s history,” said Senator Baker, comparing the struggle for healthcare reform to landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

“Health reform can be achieved,” he added. “But in order for that to happen we must work beyond our points of disagreement and focus on reaching bipartisan solutions.”

One of the flashpoints on Capitol Hill is whether or not to tax existing employer benefits – a move that runs afoul of President Obama’s campaign pledge not to add new taxes to families with incomes less than $250,000. But after intense negotiation, the former Senate leaders agreed to cap the tax exclusion at the value of benefits received by members of Congress.

“I think it’s doable in the context of what it is we’re trying to do,” said Senator Daschle, who added that there is no “painless way to do what we’re setting out to do as a country.”

Rather than a federal public option – a nonstarter for Republicans – the panel proposes financial and technical support for states that set up their own plans to compete with private insurers “on a level playing field.”

If after five years private plans aren’t meeting the need for affordable coverage, the president can use new fast-track procedures to set up a federal public plan.

“It wasn’t my first choice – or even second or third,” said Daschle, in a Monitor interview.

“I had a lot of trouble with mandates, just as Tom had trouble with the public plan, but if we can’t compromise how are you ever going to get a bill passed,” added Senator Dole.

Meanwhile, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee wound up Day 1 of its session on healthcare legislation deeply divided.

“The bill we’ve been presented with is so flawed and expensive we’d be better advised to start over,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee.

“This is as important a debate as we've had in a long time, and may have for a long time to come,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut, who took over leadership of the panel in the absence of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who is away from the Senate for health reasons.

“My goal is to develop a piece of legislation that enjoys as much broad support as possible, but we need to make sure it’s a meaningful piece of legislation,” Senator Dodd said.

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