Senator Believes Republicans and Democrats Can Meet Halfway on Health-Care Debate

Sen. Bob Corker greets attendees during a town hall meeting about health-care reform at Loudon High School in Loudon, Tenn. In the current climate even a first-term senator in the minority party, like Corker, can have influence.
Sen. Bob Corker greets attendees during a town hall meeting about health-care reform at Loudon High School in Loudon, Tenn. In the current climate even a first-term senator in the minority party, like Corker, can have influence. (By Amy Smotherman Burgess -- Knoxville News Sentinel)
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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 4, 2009

LOUDON, Tenn. -- Republican Sen. Bob Corker stood before a packed high school auditorium this week for his 24th and final town hall meeting of the summer, sketching out his vision for the bipartisan health-care plan he says he is convinced Congress can pass.

A contentious August recess dramatically reshaped the debate, and lawmakers will return to work next week facing a landscape that even a conservative first-term senator in the minority party such as Corker has the opportunity to influence.

After Democratic proposals endured weeks of battering in public forums, President Obama will attempt to restore momentum to the reform process he initiated, beginning with an address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. And while the administration was reluctant to make major concessions on the shape of health legislation before lawmakers left town, Obama aides are making it clear that they are ready to listen to any ideas that could help make significant change a reality.

Although heated rhetoric over a potential government takeover of health care has been a staple of the hundreds of town meetings lawmakers held this summer, many Republicans say they heard a second message back home: No matter how flawed the plans being pushed by Democrats, the status quo is not a popular alternative.

Some GOP lawmakers, including Corker (Tenn.), say they think bipartisan agreement may become more attainable if those demonstrations lead Democrats to scale back their reform ambitions, particularly when it comes to creating a new government-run insurance program, or "public option."

"There is a common ground," Corker said Wednesday in an interview before his final town hall meeting. "It's half a loaf, possibly, from the administration's viewpoint. But what it does is take us way down the field."

For two months, the bipartisan efforts to compromise on health care were limited to the Senate Finance Committee's "Gang of Six." That group will reconvene Friday by conference call and is tasked with producing a bill by Sept. 15. But there are glimmers that support for a less ambitious bill may be expanding and could include some unlikely participants.

Many of the proposals Corker mentioned to his constituents are ideas that Democrats also support and have included in their own reform plans. As he sees it, insurers would no longer be allowed to deny coverage for preexisting conditions, Corker told the crowd, and would offer an array of plans via a new insurance exchange, unrestricted by the current boundaries of state insurance laws. To help the uninsured gain coverage, the government would provide vouchers or tax credits, and would tax the most generous employer-offered plans to pay the cost.

But a public insurance option is a non-starter, Corker warned, and unless Obama pushes the idea off the table next week, meaningful GOP support will not materialize. A serious and gradual bid to control costs and expand coverage, however, could prove difficult for certain Republicans to resist, he said.

Even some liberal Democrats are beginning to concede that the terms of the debate need to shift to get 60 Senators, a filibuster-proof majority, to support a measure.

"Getting people to understand that costs are out of control, and the system can't continue with costs going up as rapidly as they are, and we need real cost-cutting as the centerpiece of a bill -- that's what you need in terms of being bipartisan," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a member of the Senate Democratic leadership.

Any discussions about potential bipartisan agreement must be measured against harsher political realities. Republicans are not eager to hand a landmark victory to a president who has quickly seen his fortunes take a turn for the worse, particularly on an issue that helped them derail President Bill Clinton's health-care agenda in the early 1990s. And GOP strategists say the events of the past month have increased doubts about the Democratic reform effort, and said GOP lawmakers would continue to attack any provisions that would expand the government's role in health care, increase the federal deficit or threaten Medicare.

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