Price Tag of Health Reform Bill Prompts Sparring and a Delay in Congress

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 19, 2009

President Obama's hopes for quick action on comprehensive health-care reform ran headlong this week into the realities of Congress, as lawmakers searching for the money to pay for a broad expansion of coverage discovered that it wasn't easy to find and descended into partisan -- and intraparty -- bickering.

A set of unexpectedly high cost estimates -- arcane data that nevertheless carry enormous import in the legislative process -- sent shockwaves along Pennsylvania Avenue and forced one key committee to delay action on its bill, probably until after the July 4 recess.

In a high-level meeting at the White House yesterday, Obama conveyed his concern over early pronouncements by the Congressional Budget Office that a bill drafted by the Senate health committee would cover just 16 million additional people at a cost of $1 trillion, said one official with knowledge of the session who was not permitted to talk to reporters and so spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"That is not his idea of good, affordable, universal coverage," said this adviser. The preliminary estimate, pounced on by Republicans, "has rattled everyone."

House Democratic leaders, meanwhile, said they will wait until next month to unveil plans for financing their bill.

"All I know is that health-care reform is on life support because the Senate can't figure out how to pay for it," said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), who was touting his bipartisan bill.

Obama has imbued the health-care debate with a sense of urgency, pressing party leaders to conclude action on the House and Senate floors by Labor Day. But progress has slowed because of the realization that any attempt to provide coverage to the bulk of the nation's 46 million uninsured people will cost an enormous amount of money, even when factoring in potential long-term savings from modernization and efficiencies.

In a speech to the American Medical Association on Monday, Obama bragged that he had spelled out $950 billion worth of budget cuts and tax increases over the next 10 years -- an amount, he said, that takes "us almost all the way to covering the full cost of health-care reform."

But the independent CBO estimated that a draft bill by the Senate Finance Committee would cost $1.6 trillion, a figure that Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) described as "a jolt of reality."

"That was a wake-up call that we have to approach this reform with some caution," she said.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel acknowledged that $1.6 trillion "is a big number" that forced administration aides and congressional staff to rework the plan. "Everybody now is going to take these bills back and come in below $1 trillion," he said yesterday.

But Emanuel described haggling over cost estimates as a routine part of lawmaking. "Since it's the first inning, I wouldn't call the game," he said.

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