Analysis: Baucus Health-Care Bill Appears to Be Moving Forward

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009; 6:42 AM

On the surface, it appears that no one is happy with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) -- and that may be the best news President Obama has had in months.

Within minutes of the release of the Senate Finance Committee chairman's long-awaited health-care reform bill Wednesday, the attacks started flying. Liberal Democrats and allies, particularly labor unions, fumed. Republicans, after being courted for months, denounced the work as pure partisanship.

But behind the rhetorical fireworks was a sense that the fragile coalition of major industry leaders and interest groups central to refashioning the nation's $2.5 trillion health-care system remains intact. As they scoured the 223-page document, many of the most influential players found elements to dislike, but not necessarily reasons to kill the effort. Most enticing was the prospect of 30 million new customers.

At the White House, after the delays and drama of summer, strategists spoke finally of movement and a possible path toward success on the president's centerpiece domestic policy goal. To keep up the pressure, Obama will hold a health-care reform rally late Thursday morning at the University of Maryland. On Wednesday, he met with three lawmakers who had warned they would not support the Baucus bill.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who is upset that Baucus did not include a public health insurance option, tempered his criticism after the private session with Obama, signaling that he hopes to work out a compromise.

"Nothing is clearer than the president's commitment to providing affordable and effective health care for all Americans, and he and I are united in our efforts to deliver on this promise," Rockefeller said.

Lawmakers and lobbyists alike cautioned that Obama remains far from a White House signing ceremony and that perhaps the greatest danger at this point is death by a thousand legislative changes.

The goal now is to keep the legislation moving toward a House and Senate conference committee, in which the administration would have its greatest influence on the outcome.

"He is open to a variety of different approaches if it gets it out of the Finance Committee," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said after talking to Obama. "He also knows he's got a lot of heavy lifting to do to get it out of the Finance Committee."

At the heart of the administration's strategy -- and Wednesday's guarded optimism -- is a collection of deals intended to neutralize the interest groups that helped defeat President Bill Clinton's health-care overhaul 15 years ago. In each instance, the industry has agreed to make financial concessions in return for new customers or other protections that could have lasting effects.

Hospitals, for example, have said they would accept about $155 billion in cuts over the next decade in return for promises that they would be exempt from actions taken by a proposed commission that would pursue additional savings in the Medicare program.

The best evidence that the approach was holding was the calm emanating from organizations that have criticized House health-care bills and a version approved by the Senate health committee.

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