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The Hill

Baucus, Kennedy to huddle on healthcare

By Jeffrey Young

Posted: 11/17/08 06:59 PM [ET]


Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) will sit down with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and other key members of the upper chamber on Tuesday to begin divvying up jurisdiction on healthcare reform.

“The healthcare system is broken for individual Americans and it’s straining our economy,” said Baucus, who called for immediate action on health reform.

“It is the duty of the next Congress to write meaningful healthcare legislation that provides coverage for all Americans,” Baucus said. “We have a duty to enact it in law this year.”

On the occasion of his first appearance in the Senate in four months, Kennedy, too, vowed to move a healthcare overhaul in 2009. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I’m looking forward particularly to working with Barack Obama on healthcare,” he said Monday.

Baucus, who issued a comprehensive framework for reform last Wednesday and spoke to President-elect Obama about healthcare over the weekend, plans to meet with Kennedy, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee chairman; Finance Committee ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa); and HELP Committee ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), he said during an address at the Brookings Institution.

“I want to work with all the committees — and I mean that,” Baucus said. “I don’t know if it’ll be one bill or whatnot,” he added.

Baucus also said he plans to collaborate with his House counterparts and Obama’s administration.

Kennedy, who favors a one-bill strategy, began laying groundwork for the Senate Democratic health reform effort during the summer. The longtime advocate for universal healthcare is recovering from treatments for a brain tumor.

But it was Baucus who laid down the first marker when he released a “white paper” on health reform last week. Despite lacking Kennedy’s celebrity and national profile on health issues, Baucus chairs a powerful panel and has considerable experience on major healthcare legislation.

Jurisdictional squabbling contributed to the failure of the Clinton administration’s first-term health reform effort.

The chairman of the Finance Committee at the time, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), was famously resistant to the detailed plan submitted by the White House, but he was not the only Democrat who resented Clinton’s top-down approach nor the only congressional committee chairman who wanted to put his signature on the bill that crashed soon after takeoff.

An agreement on how to carve up the territory in 2009 could be crucial to the outcome of the health reform effort in the upper chamber.

Republican Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), who sits on the HELP Committee, emphasized that the process will have great influence on whether health reform gets off the ground — and whether it reaches its destination.

“I don’t see this as a product that just comes out of one committee. I think that it’s a collective product that comes together from committees on both sides of the Hill,” Burr, who is up for reelection in 2010, said at the Brookings event.

“Max has taken everything that’s been talked about on the Hill and thrown it in the white paper,” Burr said. “It didn’t necessarily narrow down the way that we go; it opened up the opportunity for everyone to play. If that’s the way we proceed forward, we have a chance.”

The focus placed on healthcare by the incoming Democratic administration and by the Democratic leaders in Congress is a vital factor, as well, Burr said. “We went through eight years of the Bush administration and I don’t think healthcare reform was ever an initiative of the White House,” he said.

Bush did successfully push for health savings accounts and an expansion of Medicare to include prescription drug coverage.

The meetings between key senators, especially Democrats on the HELP Committee, organized from afar by Kennedy, received greater attention as the presidential campaign neared its end.

Baucus, meanwhile, convened a dozen Finance Committee hearings on aspects of reform throughout the year. The panel will meet Wednesday for another hearing that will tie the need for health reform to the nation’s troubled economy.

Kennedy has signaled that Democrats will base their health reform legislation on Obama’s proposals, and Baucus’s outline is largely consistent with that approach. By being first out of the gate with concrete principles, Baucus aims to assert a prominent role in next year’s effort.

“This is probably going to be close to the bible that everyone is going to look at in trying to figure out what our healthcare reform changes should be,” Baucus said of his white paper. Broadly, the proposal seeks to strengthen the health insurance system while increasing government spending, regulation and organization to increase coverage.

Obama telephoned Baucus to discuss health reform over the weekend, Baucus said. “We talked about healthcare reform and what we need to do to get health reform passed,” he said, later telling reporters Obama thanked him for issuing his white paper.

Baucus conceded that the cost of the plan — and how to finance it — stands as a major challenge. “There are going to be some upfront costs,” he told reporters.

The congressional Democratic leadership will be under considerable pressure from fiscal conservatives in their party, as well as Republicans, to cover the cost of health reform.

Burr pointed to the economy as an obstacle to big legislation. “I’m not sure how we digest much more than the economic crisis that we’re in because, at some point, you have to look at the funding mechanisms,” he said. “Tell me, how do we fund the reforms in healthcare?”

Baucus highlighted the importance of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to the process. Whether the CBO agrees with him that many planks in his platform will lead to long-term savings will go a long way toward determining the cost of any legislation. Baucus said he has been in discussions with CBO Director Peter Orszag.

Whitehouse put it bluntly: “We’ve got to find a way to manage the CBO problem,” he said. “Peter Orszag is a wonderful guy, but he should not be our healthcare emperor.”

J. Taylor Rushing contributed to this article.