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Senate Finance Delays Action on Health Bill

By Richard Rubin, CQ Staff

June 17, 2009 -- The Senate Finance Committee is tapping the brakes on its drive to overhaul the health care system, delaying a scheduled June 23 markup, possibly until July.

Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said it is too early to know when he will release details of his bill or set a markup date. "When we're ready, we'll be ready," he said after a closed-door committee meeting on Wednesday. "We're not there yet."

Baucus had planned to release a chairman's mark June 19, in preparation for a markup next week. But he has been struggling to produce a bill that will cost less than $1 trillion over 10 years and include an equal amount of offsetting revenue or savings.

One estimate from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) put the price tag on his preliminary plan at $1.6 trillion.

"These numbers are not still all in yet, and we have to wait until we get them, some of these numbers, as senators make up their minds on policy," Baucus said. "It's just taking time here."

Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said the cost could be reduced by addressing a subsidy to help lower-income individuals purchase health insurance and the "affordability index" that determines eligibility for new health-insurance exchanges. The CBO, Conrad said, concluded that the latest versions of those provisions would push more people off employer-sponsored insurance.

"To the extent we can, it's important that people stick with employer-based coverage, otherwise more people wind up in the exchanges," he said.

Republicans welcomed the markup delay, saying they worried that the process—driven by President Obama's October deadline—was moving too quickly and could cause unintended consequences. "This is not the way to do one-sixth of the American economy," said Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, who said he did not blame Baucus. "We're likely to make some terrible, horrific mistakes."

Baucus has been trying to move a bipartisan bill, courting his panel's top-ranking Republican, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, among others.

Grassley said Wednesday that several major issues remain unresolved, including a government-run insurance plan, a mandate on employers and financing.

To cover the cost of insuring more Americans, the Finance bill is expected to rely on cost savings from Medicare and a new cap on the value of employer-provided health benefits that are exempt from taxation.

Grassley said the $1 trillion cost target set by Baucus was welcomed by Republicans, although he does not view the figure as a "line in the sand."

Grassley said the delay in moving the legislation is due in part to the need to allow time for CBO to do its work. "Whether it slipped a day or a week, I don't really know," he told reporters on a conference call. "But part of that is scoring by CBO. They're very sophisticated in their approach. We don't necessarily get the information to them on time.

House Ways and Means Chairman Charles B. Rangel said the Finance Committee delay might prompt the House to move more quickly on health care. "A lot more pressure's going to be put on us to get something done before the July recess, but I don't know," Rangel, D-N.Y., said after meeting with committee Democrats Wednesday.

Rangel said he expects to have a preliminary draft—without financing options — prepared by the end of the week, with a more specific plan next week. An aide said a hearing is likely next week.

Rangel said he is trying to satisfy diverse views on his committee and "trying to perfect the delivery system and the cost containment of the bill, and at same time not to deviate beyond the concepts of the White House health reform [proposal]."

Joseph J. Schatz contributed to this story.

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