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Health On The Hill

Jackie Judd, Kaiser Family Foundation, Mary Agnes Carey and Eric Pianin, Kaiser Health News

By a vote of 14 to 9 the Senate Finance Committee approved an $829 billion health care overhaul package. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., won the support of all 13 Democrats on the panel and one Republican, Olympia Snowe of Maine. The Finance measure will now be combined with legislation the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed earlier this year with Senate debate on the merged bill expected to begin later this month.


JACKIE JUDD: I’m Jackie Judd with Health on the Hill. There is breaking news on Capital Hill. The Senate Finance Committee has finally voted and approved a health care reform bill. Mary Agnes Carey and Eric Pianin, both of Kaiser Health News, were in the room when it happened. Mary Agnes, walk us through it.

MARY AGNES CAREY: Well, it was a pretty exciting day for Max Baucus, the Chairman of the Finance Committee. All of the Democrats on the panel voted for the measure, as did Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine. He’s been courting her vote for awhile. President Obama had been doing that. And while people who voted for the bill, several Senators said there were things they wanted to see changed before the bill went to the floor. It was a really great day for him and a great victory for Senator Baucus, who talked extensively about the Committee deliberations over the last two years- all the hearings. They had a health reform summit about a year ago at the Library of Congress and how everything had built to this day.

JACKIE JUDD: Eric, fill us in on why Snowe eventually did come around, how she was persuaded.

ERIC PIANIN: Well, I think that Snowe sort of found herself in the cat bird seat for the last month or so as the most sought-after Republican. She has very strong views on issues of affordability- will her constituents be able to get affordable health care insurance; will there be enough transparency in the system. She has a laundry list of things that she’s concerned about, and Democrats are very solicitous of that. She made it clear before the final role call that this wasn’t a final commitment, that she wants to keep the process going, she wants to continue negotiating, and that she’ll make a final decision when the final bill reaches the floor in the Senate.

JACKIE JUDD: And she did say- didn’t she- when history calls, history calls?

ERIC PIANIN: She said that, and she also said that the nation can’t afford to wait any longer, that in-action was not an option, and that seemed to be a theme that echoed throughout the debate, certainly on the Democratic side of the isle. Republicans had a different view of things.

JACKIE JUDD: As you both know, there are several other bills on Capital Hill, in the House certainly and another one in the Senate. But this bill in Senate Finance drew the most attention. The most significance has been attached to it. Why? Mary Agnes?

MARY AGNES CAREY: It’s viewed as the greatest opportunity to get bipartisan support, that the bills passed from the Senate Health Education Labor Intentions Committee. The bill’s passed in three different committees on the House, they gained absolutely no Republican votes, and this bill, this Finance bill did, and so it’s viewed as the vehicle that had the greatest chance of bipartisan support, and our next step here in the Senate is to combine the Finance package along with the Senate Health Committee bill, put that into one. But I think that a lot of people will view this vote, view Olympia Snowe’s vote for the package, as the sign that if the final bill on the Senate floor and perhaps a bill coming out of the conference, leans more toward the Senate Finance package, it may have a chance to get Republican support, which could be important as things move along.

ERIC PIANIN: You know, I also think it’s important to note that Baucus was able to hold all the Democrats together, and that was not an easy task. There were two or three in particular- Rockefeller from West Virginia, Blanche Lincoln from Arkansas, Ron Wyden from Oregon- who had very strong feelings about the legislations and what they saw as major flaws. Rockefeller in particular was concerned that there was no public insurance option in the bill, and he’s going to fight for that on the floor, but he and Lincoln, who has some political problems back home, is facing a tough reelection campaign and the conservative state. And Wyden all, although having reservations, decided to support the bill, keep the process going. And I spoke with Baucus afterward and, you know, I asked him, well, what about this fallback position of using budget reconciliation to slam the legislation through if you can’t get 60 votes. He said, no, that’s off the table now. And he said, and his explanation, look at the vote. I was able to hold all of these, you know, moderate and liberal Democrats who were threatening to bolt. They all stayed with me, so we think we can get 60 votes on the floor of the Senate.

JACKIE JUDD: And Mary Agnes, in the past 24 hours so much attention has been paid in the media to this report that AHIP, the America’s Health Insurance Plans, put out saying that if we don’t do anything, if we do something it would cost American consumers more than if we do nothing. In the end, did that report have any impact on what happened today?

MARY AGNES CAREY: Yesterday afternoon there was a background briefing with several Senate Finance staff members, and they said at that time that that report would have the effect of unifying Democrats and getting them perhaps more support from the Democrats for the Finance bill than they had had before, and I think today that was definitely in place. Several Democratic members of the Finance committee slammed the report, thought it was an ill-fated, last-minute attempt to derail the Finance package. Now, to be fair, some of the Republicans on the committee though the findings of this AHIP report were right on, but I think it was definitely a unified message from Democrats in the finance panel today that we want to pass health reform this year. As Eric noted, several of the Democrats said we have certain things we want to see in the bill as it, you know, proceeds to the floor, but we want to do this and we want to do it now, and I think that really was very clear in the vote.

JACKIE JUDD: Okay, and one final quick question for you, Eric. Is the Senate leadership talking yet about when they would ideally like to have a bill on the floor?

ERIC PIANIN: Baucus was saying that there was no real time table for getting it to the Senate floor. Meetings have begun already behind closed doors. This isn’t going to be an easy negotiation because you’ve got two committees that have produced distinctively different bills. You’ve got concerns over on the House about the approach to take. So, I can’t imagine this is going to be anything that they’re going to rush to do, but I think that Harry Reed probably senses that there’s some momentum coming out of the Finance committee today, and, you know, they want to sort of strike while the iron’s hot, but there’s no time table for when they’re going to bring it to the floor.

JACKIE JUDD: Okay, thank you both so much, Eric Pianin and Mary Agnes Carey on Capital Hill, and both of Kaiser Health News. I’m Jackie Judd.

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