Senate Finance Committee Sets Timetable for Drafting Health Care Bill, With or Without Republicans

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | September 10, 2009 | 8:04 AM EDT
Washington (AP) - A leading Senate negotiator acknowledged Wednesday that a bipartisan deal on health care is unlikely, vowing to move ahead on a bill fulfilling President Barack Obama's top domestic priority whether it has Republican support or not.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he will formally introduce his own proposal next week, and convene his panel to begin drafting a bill the week of Sept. 21. He said he believes Congress can finish a bill by the end of the year.
"We have to move forward," Baucus said. Finance is the last remaining committee before the bill can go to the floor.
Separately, congressional and industry sources said committee negotiators have agreed to slash fines that families could face for failing to get health insurance under a plan Baucus is developing. It would require all Americans to get coverage, with tax credits and other assistance for households making up to four times the poverty level, or about $88,000 for a family of four.
The fines would be reduced from a maximum of $3,800 originally proposed, to a ceiling of around $1,500, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to divulge details of the emerging draft.
Baucus has spent the better part of two years patiently laying the groundwork for a bipartisan solution to America's predicament with health care that costs too much and leaves millions without coverage. On Wednesday he was forced to acknowledge that an agreement with Republicans to break the health care stalemate is not in the cards anytime soon.
Such an achievement would have made him the talk of Washington, but in keeping with his deep-seated optimism, Baucus said he's still hopeful.
"I very much hope and do expect Republicans will be on board," he said. "I don't know how many, but if there are not any, I will move forward anyway."
Technically, his small group of three Democrats and three Republicans -- the Gang of Six -- is still negotiating. It's possible that some of the Republicans could endorse a version of a proposal that Baucus circulated over the weekend. But now, Democrats are lining up to take issue with his plan.
"It's obviously just a starting point," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., adding he's concerned the plan won't provide enough choice, and that finding affordable coverage will still be a stretch for too many families.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he was not at all pleased with some compromises Baucus made with Republicans. Rockefeller said they would weaken the Medicaid program for the poor and undermine state-based consumer safeguards for people who buy health insurance on their own. And that was only the beginning of Rockefeller's complaints. Baucus' plan lacks a government health insurance option, which Rockefeller sees as essential to holding down costs.
The 10-year, nearly $900-billion Baucus plan would require all Americans to get health insurance. It would provide direct subsidies and other help with premiums for households making up to four times the federal poverty level, about $88,000. People already covered would not see big changes. But small businesses and self-employed people would be able to buy coverage through new purchasing pools called exchanges, gaining the market clout big companies now have. Insurers would be prohibited from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.
Baucus' plan would create nonprofit cooperatives instead of a government-run plan to compete with private insurers. That puts him at odds with most Democrats, but Baucus said he's become more convinced that a government-sponsored option can pass the Senate.
Baucus' main Republican counterpart was reluctant to say it's all over. Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa has been under pressure from his own party to leave the negotiations.
"I don't see right this minute any reason to walk away from the table," Grassley said. "And I've always said that I wouldn't walk away, I'd be shoved away."
They're meeting again Thursday morning.
Associated Press Writers Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Kenneth Thomas contributed to this report.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he will formally introduce his own proposal next week, and convene his panel to begin drafting a bill the week of Sept. 21. He said he believes Congress can finish a bill by the end of the year.