Vote on Key Health Bill Delayed for Cost Report

By Shailagh Murray and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Senators learned Monday that a committee vote on health-care reform will be pushed back to later this week, and perhaps into next week, as they await an estimate on how much the overhaul would cost.

But if the news of the delayed vote disappointed them, Democratic leaders in the Senate took heart from pro-reform statements from some high-profile Republicans, including former Senate majority leader Bill Frist and former health and human services secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

The Senate Finance Committee wrapped up work Friday on a reform bill, but committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) promised his members that before voting they would have a "reasonable" amount of time to review the bill's price tag, as assessed by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. That report, committee aides said Monday, will arrive later than expected.

The panel's vote is expected to be close, and passage could hinge on a handful of senators who have indicated that the CBO's report may sway them.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) already has begun informal discussions with senators and White House officials, a spokesman said, about merging the Finance Committee's bill with another, passed by a different Senate committee in July. Reid's talks are intended to establish areas of broad policy agreement so that official negotiations can focus on thornier issues, Reid spokesman Jim Manley said.

Thompson teamed with former House majority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) in citing some "troublesome and unresolved" issues in the Finance Committee's bill. The two men urged Congress nevertheless to overcome its differences and get the job done. "Failure to reach an agreement on health reform this year is not an acceptable option," Thompson and Gephardt wrote. "It is time for action."

Mark McClellan, like Thompson a prominent member of President George W. Bush's administration, also urged lawmakers on Monday to seize the moment. "The health-care problems facing this country are urgent and large, and we need to do something about them," said McClellan, a former Medicare and Medicaid administrator who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I don't want to miss this opportunity."

Their comments came on the heels of Frist (Tenn.) telling Time magazine that he "would end up voting for" reform were he still a senator. Frist, a heart surgeon, later qualified his position to ABC News Radio, saying that the Finance Committee bill is "not where I want it to be. It's going to cost way too much, and we're not going to get all the uninsured into the marketplace."

President Obama on Monday held a pep rally for about 150 doctors at the White House, urging them to use their professional clout to keep the pressure on Congress for reform.

"If you're willing to speak out strongly on behalf of the things you care about and what you see each and every day as you're serving patients all across the country, I'm confident we are going to get health reform passed this year," the president told the doctors, who wore white lab coats under the brilliant fall sun.

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