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Senators Begin Battle Over Baucus Health Care Bill

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Senators in a key legislative panel took the full morning to give opening statements in what is sure to be a lengthy process of modifying a health care bill put forward by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). Before reviewing more than 500 proposed amendments to the bill, both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee took turns expounding on how they would improve the legislation.

Republicans blasted the bill for the taxes it imposes and the government-based proposals, such as the mandate for all Americans to purchase insurance and the expansion of Medicare. Though Baucus spent months deliberating the issue with a select few Democrats and Republicans, making concessions along the way, Republicans bemoaned the fact that they did not receive more time to negotiate.

Democrats insisted action must be taken now, with some calling for the bill to go further in its reforms.

"The time has come to take on this daunting task. The time has come to reform America's health care," Baucus said in his opening statement. He called his bill a "balanced, common sense plan that takes the best idea from both sides. It's designed to get the 60 votes it needs to pass."

Republicans took issue, however, with some central components of the plan. For instance, ranking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) called the individual mandate an "intrusion into private life" that would require extensive enforcement. Special Report: Health Care

While Democrats have commonly portrayed private insurance companies as villains in their arguments for reform, Grassley appropriated that rhetoric in his own remarks.

The individual mandate, he said, "may be what the powerful insurance companies demanded for obvious reasons, but we don't have to do it the way the insurance companies want to get it done."

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), agreed that the bill could be a boon to the insurance industry. He said that reality, paired with the lack of a government-run insurance plan, or "public option," in the bill, meant Baucus' bill is a far cry from a "government takeover" of health care.

Nevertheless, Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) said the nonprofit cooperative system that would be partially funded in the Baucus bill could "run the risk of leading to a national health care system."

"I do not support a government takeover of our health care system," he said.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), one of the gang of six who negotiated with Baucus to create the bill, said conversely that he supported a public option on a level playing field with private insurers -- a plan proposed in an amendment from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

"I hope that we can make that improvement as we go forward," he said.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) urged his fellow Democrats to consider that the health care system could be improved without a public option. He suggested the other senators read a book by T.R. Reid, called "The Healing of America," that gives examples of more efficient health care systems in other countries that are privately run.

He said Baucus' plan is "a mainstream proposal that moves us in the right direction."

Republicans also expressed concerns about the taxes imposed through the bill, which Grassley said fall on "everything from Q-tips to pacemakers to cancer screenings to pregnancy tests."

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) warned that the proposed reforms would cost taxpayers more than anticipated.

"When Washington tells you something costs $5 it always costs $10 or more," he said

Some Republicans complained that Baucus' bipartisan negotiations were cut short. Grassley commended Baucus for reaching out to both sides of the aisle but said the White House and Democratic leadership "would rather have (health care reform) done right now than done right."

Baucus' committee extended its deadlines for discussion over recent months, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in his opening remarks, "Only in Washington could people suggest that's a rush."

"We can't afford to.... not get this done in the legislative time we have left," he said.

Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate may have different ideas about when a final bill will pass. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid reportedly said he can't promise a health care bill will pass this year. Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week she wants a bill passed within weeks.

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