Washington Post- Baucus Touts Lower Cost of Compromise Health-Care Bill | Friends of Cancer Research

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Washington Post- Baucus Touts Lower Cost of Compromise Health-Care Bill

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane, As the House moved closer to agreement on its health bill, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus announced that a draft of the reform package he is negotiating with three Republican senators would come with a lower-than-expected price tag, less than $900 billion over 10 years.

Although the proposal submitted to the Congressional Budget Office is not a finished product, Baucus said early results were promising as lawmakers try to complete their work before the start of the recess on Aug. 7. The preliminary bill would provide coverage to 95 percent of Americans, be fully offset by tax increases and Medicare savings, reduce the federal deficit in the final, 10th year of the bill, and increase employer-sponsored health coverage. But the total cost would fall well below earlier CBO estimates tagging the legislation at $1 trillion, Baucus said.

"This development will help us, clearly, as we continue discussions," Baucus told reporters Wednesday morning in announcing the new cost estimate.

The draft bill would provide more cost savings through Medicare than did previous versions, reducing the need for new revenue from about $500 billion in earlier drafts to "somewhat over $300 billion," according to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who is working with Baucus on the bill. The draft also would scale back Medicare payments to physicians, a long-promised but costly provision.

"We've not reached conclusion, but we're making good progress, and this report is extremely positive," Conrad said. "We're clearly headed in the right direction."

Meanwhile, House Democrats announced a deal Wednesday afternoon on health-care legislation that would allow a key committee to finish its consideration of the legislation Friday.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said his panel would resume its previously stalled legislative markup of health reform legislation Wednesday at 4 p.m.

Conservative Democrats on the panel, who had held up the final deliberation, also announced the deal, contingent on the provision that no final vote on the full House floor will take place until September.

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) said the deal would cut $100 billion from the cost of the legislation and would not pay health-care providers based on Medicare reimbursement rates, which the conservatives say pays their rural hospitals disproportionately low rates compared to urban areas.

Finance negotiators are aiming to wrap up their arduous multi-week talks in the coming days, and Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he expects a panel vote before the Senate recess.

"We're on the edge. We're almost there," Sen. Charles E. Grassley, a key Republican in the talks, told National Public Radio.

Assuming the fragile committee coalition holds, the legislation it produces would scramble the reform landscape by introducing policy ideas that have their origins in the political center. The bill is bound to disappoint liberals. But with prominent GOP backing, it also could prove more difficult for Republicans to reject out of hand -- the approach they have taken to the House bill and a second Senate version, written by the health committee.

The finance panel's legislation is expected to include incentives for employers to provide health insurance for their workers, rather than a more punitive coverage mandate. The committee is also likely to endorse narrowly-targeted tax increases, rejecting a controversial tax surcharge on wealthy households that the House adopted and limits on deductions for upper-income taxpayers that Obama is seeking.

GOP negotiators rejected from the outset the kind of government-run insurance plan that Obama and most Democrats are pushing for in an attempt to inject the health-insurance market with pricing competition. Instead, the committee would create coverage cooperatives modeled after rural electricity providers.

Negotiators are scrubbing every provision for unintended consequences that could negatively affect small businesses or middle-class families, both of which Republicans say could be harmed by the other bills moving through Congress.

"What we do obviously would be important to our Republican conference," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a member of the GOP team, along with Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the finance panel, and Mike Enzi (Wyo.), the senior Republican on the health committee. Snowe said the primary goal of the negotiations is a bill that can draw Republican votes.

"I think it might resonate, frankly, with our colleagues," Snowe said of the emerging compromise measure. "We want the basis for a bipartisan agreement, and I think that could be the launching pad for that resolution."

Reid told reporters Tuesday that he might be willing to compromise on points of policy if it meant getting the 60 votes needed to turn back GOP procedural objections. The Senate Democratic caucus stands at 60 members, but two members -- Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) -- have battled serious illness, requiring Reid to win support from at least two Republicans to make up for their absence.

"I have a responsibility to get a bill on the Senate floor that will get 60 votes," Reid said. "That's my number one responsibility, and there are times when I have to set aside my personal preferences for the good of the Senate and, I think, the country."