Senate Panel Breaks for Weekend Without Tackling Public Option

Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 25, 2009; 1:28 PM

Senators debating a much-watched bill that would overhaul the nation's health-care system broke for the weekend Friday without tackling an issue that has split the American public: whether the government should sponsor a insurance plan to compete with private insurers.

A group of Democrats had announced Thursday that they would bring up the so-called public insurance option in a meeting Friday of the Senate Finance Committee. That panel is considering hundreds of amendments to a health-care bill written by committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

But the committee, which has slogged through the long list of amendments, recessed before the issue could come to the floor. It will not reconvene until Tuesday morning, in observance of Yom Kippur on Monday.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll this month showed that the idea of a public option had support from 55 percent of those surveyed, but the proposal also has drawn intense objections. Baucus has said that he did not include it in his bill because he didn't think it could pass the Senate.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), a committee member, predicted Thursday that his colleagues would come to view the government plan as the most effective way to control spiraling health-care costs.

"There really isn't an alternative, except the status quo," Rockefeller said. "This whole health-care fight is about getting away from the status quo so people can have health insurance they can afford."

In the House, Democratic leaders did discuss the public option on Friday, in a 3 1/2 -hour meeting. The shape and format of such a government-sponsored alternative is the central issue holding up House Democrats as they aim to bring a health-care bill to the floor by mid-October.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that some ideas proposed by centrist Democrats in a meeting Thursday were not acceptable. She rejected a proposed "trigger" that would implement the so-called public option if affordable coverage is not available to the majority of Americans after several years. "A trigger is an excuse for not doing anything," she said, summing up what she described as the "attitude" of many colleagues.

If the trigger is off the table, the key decision ahead for Pelosi's leadership team is choosing between competing versions of the public option that House committees have approved. One is preferred by the party's dominant liberal wing, while another is backed by a large bloc of moderate-to-conservative Democrats.

On Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee voted to stick by a deal struck months ago by the Obama White House, Baucus and the drug lobby, despite objections from Democratic senators on the panel.

Under the agreement, negotiated by the White House, drug companies pledged to contribute $80 billion in discounts and fees over the next decade in return for a universal health-care bill that could deliver 30 million newly insured customers.

Democrats not privy to the closed-door talks chafed at the deal, accusing the administration of settling too early for too little.

"The so-called pharma deal, cut with whomever, was pretty lenient," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a supporter of the amendment.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) led the attack, arguing that his amendment would recoup money the government lost when it moved elderly Medicaid beneficiaries into Medicare. Drug companies pay 15 percent rebates on Medicaid drugs but not on Medicare prescriptions.

In the end, three Democrats -- Baucus; Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), whose state is home to pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca; and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), whose state is home to drugmakers Johnson & Johnson and Merck -- joined with the committee's Republicans to defeat an amendment that would override the deal.

Carper and Menendez said it would be unfair -- and politically risky -- to back out of the deal.

"I hope it passes here or on the [Senate] floor," Schumer said.

Research editor Alice Crites and staff writers Shailagh Murray, Paul Kane and Ben Pershing contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company