'); } //-->
Sen. Baucus to Tackle Health Care Costs

By MARY CLARE JALONICK
The Associated Press
Friday, November 17, 2006; 6:24 PM

WASHINGTON -- The incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee said Thursday he wants to hold hearings on looming insolvencies in the Medicare and Social Security programs but said President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security is dead.

"Don't waste our time," said Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. "It's off the table."

He said the rising cost of Medicare and other health costs is a priority for the committee, though he did not detail how the committee would approach those problems. He said he will hold "vigorous" hearings on the issue.

Baucus said he will propose legislation to simplify the Medicare prescription drug program by streamlining the number of plans available and making it easier for people to choose one.

Baucus, 64, has been on the committee for more than two decades and briefly was chairman when Democrats took Senate control in 2001, the same year he collaborated with Bush on tax-cut legislation. The senator also sided with Republicans on a Medicare overhaul in 2003, a move that frustrated many in his party who felt the bill was a giveaway to drug companies.

He said the looming insolvency in the Medicare program is a more urgent problem than a similar fiscal crisis with Social Security.

Baucus has advocated closing the so-called tax gap _ more than $300 billion a year in taxes that go uncollected _ as one way to start shoring up Social Security.

The committee will also push to renew "fast track" trade authority for President Bush next year, Baucus said, but he insisted that any new trade agreements must include tougher labor and environmental standards.

He said he will work with Republicans to renew the authority, which allows the president to negotiate a trade agreement and submit it to Congress for a simple yes-or-no vote without amendments. It was last approved by Congress in 2002 and is set to expire on July 1, 2007.

"We need to expand trade and reach solid trade agreements, but also fully address the concerns of average middle-income Americans who are worried that trade agreements may work for big business but they don't work for them," Baucus said.

The issue will be a test for Baucus and the incoming House Ways and Means Chairman, Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel of New York. The two split their votes in 2002 _ Baucus voting for the authority, Rangel voting against it.

Rangel has said he wants to renew the authority but that the president would need to consider Democratic priorities in return.

The Montana senator is close to the top Republican on the Senate committee, Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, and says he plans to be bipartisan in his approach.

"I believe very strongly that nothing of consequence passes around here unless there is cooperation," he said.

Baucus said he hopes a package that would extend some popular tax breaks _ research and development credits for businesses and deductions for college tuition and state sales taxes _ will pass before the end of the year. He also predicted that Congress could block a planned 5 percent cut in Medicare payments to physicians before Jan. 1, when it is scheduled to take effect.

Baucus said the committee plans to push legislation that would:

_ Permanently scale back the alternative minimum tax, a complicated portion of the tax code aimed to catch wealthy tax dodgers that affects middle class taxpayers.

_ Raise the estate tax exemption to $5 million for individuals and $10 for couples, an idea that has stalled so far even in the Republican Senate.

_ Push tax breaks for married couples and the child tax credit.

_ Renew and increase funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program, which is set to expire in 2007.

_ Extend renewable electricity production credits and create $1 billion in tax credits for investments in clean coal facilities.

_ Provide free college for math and science majors, provided they work and teach in their program of study for at least four years after graduation.