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Baucus unveiling health bill without GOP on board

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ERICA WERNER
September 16, 2009
— Sen. Max Baucus' decision to release his long-awaited health care overhaul bill with no Republicans on board dims the chances for a bipartisan compromise on President Barack Obama's top domestic priority.

The Senate Finance Committee chairman insisted Tuesday that he'll keep negotiating with the three Republicans and two fellow Democrats who've been in closed-door talks with him for months on the bill he was to reveal Wednesday. Baucus, D-Mont., said he hopes that by the time the committee votes on the bill, as early as next week, Republicans will be there.


But for now, despite numerous gestures to Republicans, Baucus has fallen short in his quest to assemble a coalition of senators from both parties behind his proposal. Obama also hoped for bipartisan support behind plans for reshaping the nation's $2.5 trillion health care system to hold down costs and cover the uninsured.


"The door's always open always hoping that somebody, all six, will be on the bill," Baucus told reporters Tuesday evening after the latest meeting of his so-called Gang of Six senators. "We're just going to keep the door open, keep working, keep discussing."


Many of the details in the Baucus' bill were already known. Unlike more liberal versions passed by three committees in the House and by the Senate's Health Committee, it shunned liberals' call for the government to sell insurance and relied instead on co-ops to offer coverage in competition with private industry.


Baucus' approach includes a requirement for individuals to buy insurance, with financial penalties for those who don't. Rather than a mandate for larger businesses to provide coverage for employees, they would be required to defray the cost of any government subsidies for which their employees would qualify.


The bill is expected to cost about $880 billion over 10 years, and it tracks closely with the goals Obama laid out in his speech to Congress last week.


Baucus has been working for months with his committee's top Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, along with GOP Sens. Mike Enzi of Wyoming and Olympia Snowe of Maine. In the end, Democrats believe Snowe may be the only one to support the bill, though she wasn't committing to that Tuesday night.


"Hopefully at some point through the committee process we can reach an agreement," she said.


Enzi said he was not yet ready to declare his position. Grassley applauded Baucus' effort at bipartisanship, but contended that Senate Democratic leaders and the White House had imposed an "artificial deadline" on the negotiators and that Democratic leaders "haven't made a commitment to back a broad bipartisan bill through the entire process."


"It looks like we're being pushed aside by the Democratic leadership so the Senate can move forward on a bill that, up to this point, does not meet the shared goals for affordable, accessible health coverage that we set forth when this process began," Grassley said in a statement.


He cited Republican concerns over cost, taxpayer funding for abortion services, medical malpractice lawsuits and subsidies for illegal immigrants in any health care bill.


"We've been clear from the start that we're willing to stay at the table," Grassley added. "There's no reason not to keep working until we get it right."


Even as he's failed to win over Republicans, Baucus also faces opposition from liberals on his committee. Some of them want a public plan in place of co-ops, and several have also expressed concerns about whether Baucus, in his effort to keep his bill's price tag down, has done enough to make health coverage affordable for working-class and low-income Americans.


"The way it is now there is no way I can vote for the package," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said Tuesday on a conference call with reporters, becoming the first Finance Committee Democrat to voice outright opposition.


Release of Baucus' bill sets the stage for what could be a lengthy and contentious drafting and voting session to begin next week, with numerous amendments expected both from the right and from the left. Following that, Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate are aiming for floor action in the fall.


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Associated Press writers David Espo, Charles Babington and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.



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