If a healthcare bill passes, this group might be why

A bipartisan group of senators met Tuesday to hash out details. The same panel helped President Bush to his first major legislative victory.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
President Barack Obama met with Senate Democrats to discuss health care, June 2, at the White House in Washington.

As Congress presses toward an August recess, two campaigns for healthcare reform are shifting into overdrive on Capitol Hill.

One is public, hot, and deeply partisan, with one Republican senator saying healthcare could be Obama's Waterloo, and Democrats accusing Republicans of playing politics with Americans' health.

“Their intent is in much more making failure happen than progress for the American people,” said House majority leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland in a mid-day briefing with reporters.

The other campaign, however, is fluid, complex, and even collegial. That’s the bid to find what’s doable on healthcare during the next few months on Capitol Hill.

It comes from a shifting group of lawmakers in the Senate Finance Committee, and if a bipartisan compromise is to clear Congress this year, it’s main lines are likely to emerge here, as it did with President Bush’s first domestic victory: the 2001 tax cuts.

“We’re slogging through all the legislative process,” says Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine, a member of the informal group.

For now, she says, the groups is not considering peeling off policies for which there is broad consensus, such as a patient’s bill of rights or a measure banning insurance companies from making pricing decisions based on “preexisting conditions.”

“We’re really trying to grapple with reform of the entire system, if at all possible,” she adds.

Other finance panel members in the bipartisan group include the committee chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D) of Montana; the ranking Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa; Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah; Sen. Michael Enzi (R) of Wyoming; and Sen. Kent Conrad (D) of North Dakota, who also chairs the Senate Budget Committee.

“Answering these questions of substance is how we get to a result,” said Senator Baucus Tuesday. He did not confirm press reports that the bipartisan group is between $100 billion and $200 billion short of being able to pay for the $1 trillion-plus bill.

Meanwhile, House lawmakers are watching the progress of these negotiations carefully, as they could influence the timing of a House vote.

Some 50 members of the so-called Blue Dog caucus – Democrats who are considered fiscal conservatives – are in tense negotiations with their leadership over healthcare reform. Many are reluctant to support the House bill, which includes higher taxes for the rich, unless they are sure that the same provisions will be in the Senate bill.

Fiscally conservative Democrats in the House are urging leaders to rein in costs. They are urging the House first to identify savings in the current healthcare system, then use those savings to fund an expanded program of public insurance. They also want to limit new entitlements to what can be funded without adding to the federal deficit.

“We should see what we can achieve through savings in the system and do with that,” says Rep. Jason Altmire (D) of Pennnsylvania.

In a briefing after a party caucus luncheon, Senate majority leader Harry Reid said that he was encouraged by the progress of the bipartisan group.

“We’re closer than ever to getting it done,” he said. "I’m very hopeful they’ll have a bill this week, and we can start marking it up next week."


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