Baucus bill targets senators retreating from public option

President Obama's speech on healthcare reform Wednesday night will provide an opportunity for lawmakers to rally around a more moderate bill, centrist senators say.

By , Staff writer

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    Sen. Max Baucus, (D) of Montana, talks with reporters after a meeting on health care reform on Tuesday, in Washington.
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Dealmakers on Capitol Hill are scrambling to stay relevant in the healthcare reform effort as President Obama prepares to announce his own priorities in a primetime speech to Congress Wednesday.

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D) of Montana is trying to push out the "framework" for a bipartisan bill before the president speaks. He is giving his co-negotiators – the so-called "Gang of Six" – until 10 a.m. Wednesday to submit modifications to his proposal.

The Finance Committee is the last of five congressional panels to produce a draft of healthcare legislation, and it is the only one to attempt a bipartisan strategy.

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Centrists in both parties, battered by last month's town halls, are increasingly looking to the president’s speech to Congress Wednesday evening as a chance to regroup around a more moderate proposal. Senator Baucus is aiming to fill this void.

His plan includes popular insurance reforms, such as protecting those with preexisting conditions and preventing companies from capping coverage. But it also funds the establishment of nonprofit, healthcare cooperatives to give consumers more choices in healthcare coverage. It does not include the government-run public option that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other liberals say is critical.

“The fact that [the Baucus proposal] doesn’t include a public option is a positive step,” says Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska. “I couldn’t see how you could structure a public option in competition with the private sector and be fair. Now, we don’t have to deal with it.”

He and other moderates say it’s important that Congress be seen working toward a bipartisan solution. “It would be difficult for the bill to
have credibility with the public without as broad support as possible,” he adds.

Many moderate Democrats came back from August recess after bruising experiences with constituents in town-hall meetings on healthcare. On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Ross (D) of Arkansas, a prominent fiscal conservative, announced that after listening to voters at home, he could no longer support a public option in the final bill.

Republican centrists say they have taken calls from the White House and Baucus in recent days as both attempt to encourage a bipartisan outcome.

Freshman Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who has already established a record of working across party lines, says that he had 24 “vigorous” town meetings on healthcare and that many of his constituents saw no need for it. But he says “there is a middle ground that I really do think numbers of Republicans can support.”

“There’s going to be an opportunity in the next few weeks to focus on some pragmatic steps that unify us and take us in a positive direction,” he says. “But in healthcare, it’s the details that matter.”

Baucus's proposal, released over the Labor Day weekend, is expected to cost at least $100 billion less than the draft bills released by the four other congressional panels, though the Congressional Budget Office has not yet analyzed it.

The framework does not include a public option because “it can’t pass the full Senate,” Baucus told reporters Tuesday.

His key co-negotiators – including Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Michael Enzi (R) of Wyoming – were cool to the proposal.

Senator Grassley told a C-SPAN's Washington Journal Tuesday that the Baucus framework still costs too much: "I'm looking for something closer to $700 billion."

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