Health-Care Bill Stands to Be Picked Apart in the Senate

Senate Finance Committee member Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) prepares for another day of deliberations.
Senate Finance Committee member Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) prepares for another day of deliberations. (By Susan Walsh -- Associated Press)
By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009

At precisely 11:53 a.m. Friday, after a full week of debate on his bill to refashion the nation's health-care system, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) rose from his chair and silently slipped out the back door.

Not a headline-grabbing moment, to be sure -- except that his panel was still deliberating.

It seems Baucus, the marathon runner who endured more than 35 hours of debate in an attempt to wear down his colleagues, was himself finally worn out.

Baucus has promised to resume committee work Tuesday. But the fight is increasingly shifting away from him and onto the Senate floor, where 99 other independent-minded lawmakers are already scheming about how to put their stamp on what could be the most significant piece of domestic-policy legislation in a generation.

In a plodding week of partisan sniping, the bill that was supposed to be President Obama's greatest hope for a grand bipartisan solution was instead described as little more than a decent rough draft, certain to be rewritten by others.

The president's own party remains sharply divided over fundamental questions such as whether to create a government-sponsored insurance option, whether employers should be required to contribute to the cost of health care, and who should bear the burden of expanding and improving the current system. And Republicans used the week of committee wrangling to sow doubts about possible tax increases and proposed Medicare reductions needed to pay for reform.

"This is going to be relitigated," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a committee member who expects the bill to be dramatically altered in the coming weeks.

Obama, after a public relations blitz in early September, receded from the health-care haggling. Though he is expected to speak about the need for reform at the Congressional Black Caucus conference Saturday, he has signaled to lawmakers that he will reengage in a substantive way after both the House and Senate vote on bills, as he did on the economic stimulus package.

Despite the messiness of the legislative process, Obama's top health adviser said the White House is "elated" by the forward movement.

"The Republicans have taken their best shots and we're not seeing erosion in the important pieces of the bill," said Nancy-Ann DeParle, head of the White House Office of Health Reform, who spent hours on Capitol Hill. "The Democrats have grown more united through the week."

DeParle and Democrats on the committee defended Baucus and the week-long process. She said many Democrats had developed "empathy" for Baucus as he presided over the long days of tedium. A prominent Democratic lobbyist, however, said many in the party believe "he let this go on too long." The lobbyist, who would speak candidly about the powerful chairman only on the condition of anonymity, said, "They think he got had by the Republicans."

Though votes have been cast on fewer than 50 of the 564 amendments that have been filed, "behind the scenes" Democrats conducted the tedious "homework of preparing to resolve the major outstanding issues," said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). Much of the work involved searching for ways to lower the cost of insurance for average Americans while adhering to Obama's admonition to keep the bill deficit-neutral. Few conclusions were reached.

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