A version of health care reform legislation to be considered next week by a key Senate committee would spend $856 billion during the next decade to overhaul the U.S. health care system. Senator Max Baucus, who heads the Senate Finance Committee, spoke about the plan, which is the last of five legislative proposals to emerge from House and Senate committees.
Senator Baucus tried for several months to hammer out an agreement with key Republicans, and address concerns some Democrats on his committee had about aspects of the plan.
While he says he still hopes Senate Republicans such as Olympia Snowe of Maine will come onboard when the committee votes on the measure as early as next week, Baucus might have to proceed without minority support.
The senator addressed that prospect in remarks at a Capitol Hill news conference, calling his bill a balanced effort to deliver on President Barack Obama's goal of affordable and accessible health care for Americans.
"I worked very hard to try to get that bipartisan support." he said. "And I think that we will get it, that is I think that certainly by the time the Finance Committee in this room votes on final passage for health care reform, there will be Republican support."
At an estimated cost of $856 billion over 10 years, the plan would require all individuals to purchase health insurance or pay a fine. Companies would be prohibited from denying coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions, or setting annual or lifetime medical spending limits.
The Baucus proposal does not contain a provision to create a government-managed health care plan that would give Americans an alternative to private insurance companies, which President Obama has said would be a preferred approach, but only one part of reform.
In one of several concessions aimed at winning Republican support, the plan would try to expand choices by creating a system of non-profit, consumer-owned insurance cooperatives and create a government-supervised insurance exchange to expand the availability of plans for Americans.
In his address to Congress last week on health care reform, President Obama said again that he would not sign any bill that adds to the federal government budget deficit.
Senator Baucus would pay for his plan by reducing expenditures in existing government health programs by more than half-a-trillion dollars, along with $349 billion in new taxes and fees as well as $6 billion in fees imposed on health insurance providers.
Senator Baucus said he recognized that his bill faces criticism from Democrats as well as Republicans. "There are some who think I have not gone far enough. There are some, on both sides of the aisle who think I have gone too far," he said.
It will now be up to Senate Democrats to put the Baucus plan together with one from the Senate Health, Labor and Pensions Committee. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid has said he hopes to get a bill to the Senate floor by the end of September, but that could be pushed into October.
Democrats in the House of Representatives, also facing united Republican opposition, will have to meld the work of three committees there into one piece of legislation that the House can consider.
Conservative Democrats, whose support will be important in any vote, welcomed the Senate Finance Committee bill, saying it addresses two of their central goals -- not adding to the federal deficit and bringing down the cost of health care over the long term.
However, two Democrats who have pushed for a government insurance option as part of any legislation - New York Representatives Anthony Weiner and Eliot Engel - declared the Baucus bill dead on arrival, if it arrives in the House for consideration.
"The Senate proposal simply will not pass muster in the U.S. House of Representatives and fails on very basic levels to satisfy the objectives of the president and the citizens of the United States of America," said Representative Weiner.
Representative Engel suggested that the House take the lead in passing a health care reform bill that contains exactly what President Obama has sought.
"What we will do here in the House is put together the three [House] bills and pass a bill with a public option, and a strong bill that Democrats believe is what the American people need and want," he said. "And then we will send the bill over to the Senate and the Senate will compromise with us as we will compromise with them."
It is unknown whether the House or Senate would act first on health care legislation. President Obama and Democrats have said they are determined to pass a reform bill before the end of this year.