2 Democratic Senators Withhold Support of Health Bill

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 5, 2009

At least two Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee have refused to pledge support for the health-care reform bill scheduled for a vote this week, underscoring the hard work ahead for President Obama as he tries to enact the most ambitious domestic policy legislation in more than a generation.

Although Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said he has the votes to pass the 10-year, $900 billion bill out of the committee, Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) remained undecided Sunday. If all 10 Republicans on the panel vote no, two Democratic defections would be enough to send Baucus and the Obama White House scrambling to regroup.

"More needs to be done to hold insurance companies accountable, to hold premiums down for the American people," Wyden said in an interview Sunday. "I want to continue these discussions."

Committee defeat of the bill is an unlikely scenario, but one that highlights the power every Senate Democrat -- and perhaps a few Republicans -- holds going forward in a process that could stretch beyond Thanksgiving.

Wyden, like many other Democrats, has begun intensive talks with administration officials and with Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who must blend the Finance bill and a version approved by the health committee for the full Senate to consider.

To assemble the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, Obama needs to hold every Democrat and independent in the Senate. He has assiduously courted them and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), considered the Republican most likely to support sweeping health-care reform. Snowe, a member of the Finance Committee, voted with Democrats on several key amendments but has remained coy about her intentions.

Last week Obama held one-on-one meetings at the White House with Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Virtually every day, he speaks by telephone to his former Senate colleagues, largely listening rather than making promises, according to administration and congressional aides familiar with the conversations.

Obama has dispatched budget director Peter Orszag, health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle and other aides to Capitol Hill. During two long weeks of committee work, DeParle was spotted strolling with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) during one dinner break and huddled in an anteroom with Democratic staff members at other times. Orszag often occupies Reid's conference room, where earlier this year he helped broker an economic stimulus deal.

Overall, the Baucus bill would extend coverage to about 30 million Americans who no w lack it, provide tax credits to some small businesses and working families to buy insurance through a new marketplace called an exchange, and tighten restrictions on insurance underwriting practices. A final committee vote will come after the Congressional Budget Office releases cost projections.

Several Democrats, describing the Baucus bill as a framework, say they will press for changes later in the process, perhaps when their leverage is greater or they have more allies.

Rockefeller and other proponents of a public insurance option say they will fight to add the provision on the Senate floor or in negotiations with the House, which appears to have the votes for it.

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is lobbying to require most businesses to contribute to employees' medical costs. He says that the "employer mandate" has worked well in his state's universal coverage program and that he thinks it is a matter of fairness. The mandate is included in House versions and in a bill passed by the Senate health committee.

Snowe and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) want exemptions for middle-class families from new fees and taxes. A bipartisan group is urging Reid to lift $40 billion in fees on makers of medical devices, and a contingent of Democrats is pressing to extract larger concessions for the pharmaceutical industry.

Wyden is concerned that under the legislation, nearly 200 million Americans who receive coverage through an employer would be barred from shopping on the new exchange. He also worries that providing a "hardship waiver" to families that cannot afford insurance leaves too many without coverage.

"People don't hold rallies saying, 'Thank you for my exemption,' " he said. "Rather, they want us to deliver more affordable coverage."

On Monday, Obama will host doctors who support sweeping reform.

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