Health plans on collision course
Carrie Budoff Brown, Patrick O’Connor Carrie Budoff Brown, Patrick O’connor Sun Dec 20, 8:01 pm ET
Despite a last-minute weekend deal that put the Senate on the brink of passing health care reform this week, liberal and moderate Democrats remain on a collision course over the bill, as both sides dug in Sunday for the next phase of negotiations.
President Barack Obama’s liberal base and powerful union leaders once hoped the expected House-Senate conference would partly undo a year of retreats and compromises, with Obama weighing in to nudge the moderate Senate bill to the left.
But the titanic struggle to lock in Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) as the 60th senator for the first key test vote early Monday morning has changed all that. The need to hold Nelson and other moderates in line means major changes on the public option, abortion, taxes, Medicare and Medicaid are unlikely — and that the Senate’s vision of health reform is likely to prevail over the House’s in the final talks.
“It is very clear that the bill — the final bill — to pass in the United States Senate is going to have to be very close to the bill that has been negotiated here,” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said on “Fox News Sunday.” “Otherwise, you will not get 60 votes in the United States Senate.”
Nelson, who received assurances of a “limited conference” to secure his vote for the Senate bill, has already laid down at least two deal breakers in the House bill that he can’t support: the inclusion of a government insurance plan and an income tax increase on wealthy individuals.
“That would break it,” Nelson said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
House Democrats acknowledge that they will be limited in how far they can tweak the Senate compromise. But House leadership also knows that its rank and file need to force some changes, however small, before they will accept the final package — as a face-saving measure to be able to swallow late changes to the bill in the Senate, most notably the decision to eliminate a public option.
But on the left, the sentiments of a liberal base that revolted over concessions to moderates were channeled Sunday by Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chairman, who last week repeatedly called on Democrats to scrap the bill.
“This can’t be the final version of the bill,” Dean said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It simply sets us on a track in this country which is expensive and where we’re going to have lots more political fights.”
In a slight shift, however, Dean tempered his words, saying the bill is better than it was earlier in the week.
“I would certainly not vote for this bill if this were the final product,” Dean said. “I would let this thing go to conference committee, and let’s see if we can fix it some more.”
Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, identified areas beyond the public option in which Democrats in both chambers could agree, including boosting the federal insurance subsidies for middle-income Americans and strengthening insurance regulations.
“It is about progress, and we now have to fight for the changes in the conference committee and decide, when it is over,” whether to support it, Stern said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Senior administration officials contend the conference will not be as difficult as predicted because the differences between the two chambers have been known for months. “Once the Senate passes this bill, obviously there’s work to be done,” White House senior adviser David Axelrod said on “State of the Union.”
Two big voices in the health-reform debate came out with endorsements of the measure moving ahead in the Senate this week: the Federation of American Hospitals, which represents private community hospitals, and AARP, the nation’s largest seniors organization, which urged the Senate to move ahead with debate.
In addition, Democrats desperately tried to avoid an ugly public fight over abortion, but it looks as though the issue will haunt them right up until the end.
Abortion-rights supporters and foes alike blasted the compromise Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) cut with Nelson late Friday night. But it’s unclear whether their opposition will be enough to sink the broader bill.
“I have some deep reservations with this Nelson language on first examination,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), a co-chairwoman of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, told POLITICO on Sunday.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), a leading abortion opponent, said during the weekend, “While I and many other pro-life Democratic House members wish to see health care coverage for all Americans, the proposed Senate language is unacceptable.”
The final Senate bill grants state legislatures the right to prevent insurance plans that operate in the proposed health insurance exchange from covering elective abortions. The changes also require people who seek abortion coverage through the exchange to pay two separate checks each month to their insurance company to “segregate” federal funds from private funds that pay for abortion.
Reproductive-rights advocates argue the new system would create a more onerous burden for women seeking coverage for the procedure, while abortion opponents have argued throughout the debate that segregating payments still violates the existing prohibition on federal funds being used to pay for abortion.
Douglas Johnson, the legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, called the changes “book-keeping contortions” and said that his group plans to put pressure on any senator who votes to consider the changes Reid unveiled.
But the real fight will occur in negotiations between House and Senate leaders over a final bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California can’t afford to lose any Democrats. And with Stupak threatening to vote against the Senate compromise, she’ll need to offset his vote with other Democrats who voted against it the first time. She might be able to pick up some moderate-to-conservative Democrats who favor the Senate approach, but many of these lawmakers will need to be OK with the final abortion restrictions.
On the other side, a bloc of abortion-rights backers, led by DeGette, has already promised to vote against any bill that includes Stupak’s amendment, which would prevent people who receive government subsidies from purchasing coverage for elective abortions through the exchange. DeGette believes many of the 41 Democrats who voted for Stupak and “yes” on the House health care bill are willing to work with party leaders to find a middle ground.
The opposing camps are similarly entrenched on the public option and the method for financing the health care expansion. The House would create a government-sponsored insurance plan, but the Senate bill is silent on this point. After several attempts at compromise, Reid nixed the public option altogether.
The taxes could prove difficult to bridge. The House relies on a so-called millionaires’ tax, and has refused to consider the tax on expensive insurance plans. The Senate has taken the exact opposite posture. But because the White House has weighed in several times in favor of the tax on “Cadillac” plans, as a key component to slow the growth rate in health care spending, the Senate is likely to win this round.
Meanwhile, Republicans increaed their attacks on the bill Sunday, criticizing a variety of deals cut to win the votes of Democratic senators, such as Nelson, who got the federal government to pick up the cost of any Medicaid expansion under the health reform bill in the state of Nebraska forever. Republicans said Democrats have refused to say which state would get about $100 million inserted into the bill on behalf of a still unidentified university hospital.
“This process is not legislation. This process is corruption,” said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). “And it’s a shame that that’s the only way we can come to consensus in this country is to buy votes.”
But Nelson defended his efforts. “I always put Nebraska first,” he told POLITICO in an interview Saturday. “But I looked at this through the standpoint of Nebraskans and the country. … There is a difference between holding out for something and holding up. I was holding out for something to make it better.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.