Instead of rallying behind a compromise health care bill introduced by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., senators on both sides of the aisle were preparing significant changes for the bill.
“I’m sure there will be a lot of changes we’ll be making to this initial building block,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., after leaving a closed-door meeting about the bill with Senate Democrats.
That may be an understatement.
With so many senators at odds with central parts of the Baucus plan, such as fines for Americans who don’t buy insurance coverage, which Republicans oppose, and the creation of an insurance exchange instead of the public option liberals want, the bill is likely to emerge from the committee drafting process next week looking completely different than the plan assembled by Baucus and his “Gang of Six” negotiators.
And after big changes in committee, lawmakers will have to painstakingly combine the Baucus bill with a much more liberal and partisan Democratic plan that includes a large, government-run insurance option and employer mandate.
“We won’t have a gang of six anymore, we’re going to have a gang of 60,” said Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., a chief architect of the liberal plan, describing the process.
Despite the differences, Senate Democratic leaders insisted that lawmakers were more encouraged than ever that they would be able to put together a bill that could pass the Senate, now that the Baucus plan was finally out.
“People feel that for the first time in a long while that we can get this done,” Senate Democratic Conference Chairman Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said.
But it is looking increasingly unlikely that they will pass any of the existing proposals with the help of the GOP.
Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who were thought to be the only two GOP senators seriously considering the Baucus bill, have refused to back it.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who left the bipartisan talks last month over objections to the bill, said he was hoping bipartisan support can materialize after the bill was amended in committee.
But even he conceded that would require massive changes. When asked what his top three alterations would be, he replied, “How about my top 50?”
Nearly drowned out by opposition to the bill is the tentative, but vital support from the Democratic moderates that both the House and Senate will eventually need to pass health care reform legislation. Many of them are opposed to the Democratic plans because of their more than $1 trillion price tag.
The new Baucus bill appeals to them because it would cost much less and eventually save money, at least according to the Congressional Budget Office.
“I think it moves the ball forward,” said Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., one of more than a dozen Senate Democratic moderates.