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Senators Meet to Discuss Health Care Overhaul

By Drew Armstrong, CQ Staff

November 19, 2008 -- Key Senate health care players from both sides of the aisle met for the first time Wednesday to discuss their plans for a health overhaul bill next year.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., the second ranking Democrat on HELP, and Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., gathered with their ranking Republican colleagues and other key committee members and said after the meeting that Congress would lead the way early in 2009.

"We all agreed that there has not been a better time in modern American health care to get meaningful health care reform," Baucus said after the meeting.

The meeting was held in Kennedy's new office, just off the Senate floor. Kennedy did not emerge to speak with reporters. He returned to the Senate this week, after being largely absent since being diagnosed in May with brain cancer.

Health overhaul is a priority for the Obama administration, but Congress is expected to lead on the issue and take general cues from the White House.

To that end, Kennedy and Baucus have been working furiously with staff to pull together policy.

"I think we have to move very quickly to seize the opportunity and build momentum, because it's difficult to anticipate what else is going to come up next year that will involve the Congress," Baucus said.

Baucus and Kennedy are making an effort to include Republicans in the planning process, despite Democrats' vastly expanded majority of 58 seats next year.

"Nothing's going to get done in the Senate if it's not bipartisan," said Finance Committee ranking Republican Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, who was in the meeting as well. Also in attendance was HELP Committee ranking Republican Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va.

Grassley said after the meeting that how lawmakers would pay for the package would be an issue for Republicans.

"I think that for a lot of us, pay-go is a big issue," he said, referring to pay-as-you-go budget rules that require any new spending be offset.

Kennedy and Baucus have both said that a sweeping health overhaul package was not likely to be fully offset.

"You have to invest in order to reap long-term savings," Baucus said. "That's understood by senators, that's understood by outside groups. I talked to Peter Orszag . . . that's understood clearly by him."

Orszag is currently the head of the Congressional Budget Office, and has been tapped by Obama to head the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Health and the Economy
At a Senate Finance Committee hearing earlier in the day, Baucus pushed the message that a health care overhaul is a key part of any economic recovery. Health care costs make up a growing part of business and personal spending.

"Comprehensive health reform legislation must be part of any successful economic recovery plan," the Montana Democrat said at a hearing to discuss the economics of health care overhaul. "Health care costs and the economy are linked: The key challenges of our health care system are high costs, low quality, and insufficient access," and those factors affect family budgets, American businesses' ability to compete abroad, and also impact government spending, he said.

"Health care reform is central to restoring America's economy," said Baucus, who on Nov. 12 released his own plan to overhaul the nation's health care system. The plan includes a requirement for individuals to purchase health care coverage

Mary Agnes Carey contributed to this report.

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