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Baucus Wants Next Congress to Tackle Health Care Overhaul from the Start

By Drew Armstrong, CQ Staff

DECEMBER 10, 2008 -- In the race to stake out territory on a health care overhaul next year, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus is making it a habit to try and be first.

The Montana Democrat said Wednesday that when the 111th Congress opens, he'll be ready with a health care bill. "I'm guessing the first of the year, near the first of the year, we'll have a bill," Baucus said.

Also on the agenda is a short-term reauthorization of the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and tens of billions in funding for health information technology.

At a news conference, Baucus said the Finance Committee is working with the Congressional Budget Office to finalize policy sections and score savings and costs. "We're quite close," Baucus said. "We're in the process now of what do you need to score this provision, what do you need to score that provision?" he said.

Saving Health IT for Stimulus Package

One thing they won't be scoring as part of that effort will be a large package of funds to help doctors and hospitals buy health information technology, such as electronic medical records. Baucus said he will put the money—likely grants and loans—in an economic stimulus package that Congress will likely take up first thing in January.

"If I can put some of those upfront costs into the stimulus bill, I want to put them there," Baucus said.

"If you want to do this as part of an economic stimulus package, that would help it along," agreed Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the committee's ranking Republican.

Baucus would not say how big the health information technology package will be, but he did say that it would likely be less than $50 billion.

Baucus also planned to do a short-term reauthorization of SCHIP. The current authorization expires at the end of March, and Baucus and other Democrats have talked about making a long-term expansion part of a health care overhaul.

The short-term reauthorization would be "of sufficient duration to fold into health reform," Baucus said.

Grassley was in line with such a plan. "I think I would back him on that," Grassley said. Including SCHIP in a health overhaul would likely help boost support for the overhaul from grass-roots organizations that helped push for an SCHIP expansion in the 110th Congress.

House Democrats May Wait on Obama

Such a short-term reauthorization would signal that Baucus is ready for a lengthy legislative struggle on a broader health overhaul bill. And while Senate Democrats are ready to burst out of the gates with their overhaul plans, getting them into law will be a more time-consuming matter.

The House is already doing its best to restrain the Senate's eagerness. There, key Democrats, such as Henry A. Waxman and Pete Stark, both of California, have said they want to wait and take their cues from President-elect Barack Obama.

"I think if Max [Baucus] thinks we're going to have universal coverage within the first couple months of [the next] Congress, he's being quite optimistic," said Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado. DeGette is a chief deputy whip for Democrats and played an important role in the 110th Congress' struggle to expand SCHIP.

In November, Baucus released an 89-page white paper outlining his plans. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., is expected to be the Senate's other leader on the bill. The two have alternately been praising the other's involvement and jockeying for primacy. While Baucus' committee has jurisdiction over key programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, Kennedy is a longer-established voice on an overhaul and has a reputation as a dealmaker.

Alex Wayne contributed to this report.

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