Budget Report: Senate Finance Panel's Health-Care Bill Wouldn't Raise Deficit

By Lori Montgomery and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 8, 2009

Congressional budget analysts gave an important political boost Wednesday to a Senate panel's health-care overhaul, projecting that the $829 billion measure would dramatically shrink the ranks of the uninsured and keep President Obama's pledge that doing so would not add "one dime" to federal budget deficits.

With the report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the measure crafted by the Senate Finance Committee has emerged as the only one of five bills by various panels that achieves every important goal Obama has set for his top domestic initiative.

White House budget director Peter Orszag applauded the analysis, saying the bill "demonstrates that we can expand coverage and improve quality while being fiscally responsible," and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) called the CBO report "another important step down the road toward enacting comprehensive health insurance reform." But senior Republicans seemed only to harden in their opposition to the measure.

The Finance Committee could vote as soon as Friday on the bill. Passage by the Democrat-dominated panel is virtually assured, but Democrats are eager to win the vote of Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), the only Republican on the committee who has expressed any support for the measure.

Snowe said Wednesday that she was relieved to see that the cost of expanding coverage remained below Obama's limit of $900 billion over the next decade. "But we have a lot to review," she said.

She urged Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to wait until next week for a final vote. "It's a critical vote. . . . I would rather have the comfort level of having had sufficient time to analyze it."

Other Republicans pored over the 27-page report in a late-afternoon huddle, then emerged with the warning that the finance panel's measure would impose a stiff price on people who already have health insurance. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the committee, said he is worried that insurers and other health-care companies would pass on the cost of new fees and taxes to consumers. And he said the bill's expansion of Medicaid would leave a new set of "unfunded mandates" for states already struggling with record budget deficits.

"There's a lot of things in there to be concerned about," Grassley said.

Reid said he hopes to combine the bill with a competing measure approved by the Senate health committee and present the result to the full Senate later this month. He will begin to convene small meetings in his office next week with Baucus, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and senior White House officials, including Orszag, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior health adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the legislation is likely to become more problematic as Reid works "in a closed-to-the-public conference room, somewhere in the Capitol" to add provisions aimed at winning the 60 votes needed to avert a GOP filibuster. "The real bill will be another 1,000-page, trillion-dollar experiment," McConnell said in a statement, "that slashes a half-trillion dollars from seniors' Medicare, raises taxes on American families by $400 billion, increases health care premiums, and vastly expands the role of the federal government in the personal health-care decisions of every American."

According to the CBO, Congress's official arbiter of the cost of legislation, the Finance Committee measure would expand coverage to an additional 29 million Americans by 2019 by dramatically expanding Medicaid coverage for the poor and by subsidizing private insurance for low- and middle-income Americans.

The $829 billion cost would be more than offset by reducing spending on Medicare and other federal health programs by about $400 billion over the next decade, and by imposing a series of fees on insurance companies, drugmakers, medical device manufacturers and other sectors of the health industry that stand to gain millions of new customers under the legislation.

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