Reid Discusses Health Care With 4 GOP Senators
Updated 7:47 p.m.
By Shailagh Murray
Four Senate Republicans emerged as potential dealmakers in the health care debate, but barring a major breakthrough in negotiations, the timetable for passing a Senate bill appears to be slipping.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) met today with four GOP members of the Senate Finance Committee: Sen. Charles Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the panel, and Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine), Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Mike Enzi (Wyo.).
Participants said Reid sought their concerns about specific provisions that may be included in the developing legislation, related to coverage options for the uninsured and how to pay for the plan.
"Our strong preference is to pass a bipartisan bill," Reid said in a statement after the session. "I appreciate some of our Republican colleagues' demonstrated commitment to that goal, and I look forward to more Republicans joining us at the negotiating table."
Snowe said one issue discussed by the group was a tax on employer-provided health benefits. The finance panel is considering such a tax, but it has encountered strong Democratic opposition. "We should just ... take it off the table and move forward and find other alternatives," said Snowe.
Senate Democratic leaders insist their goal remains to pass a bill by Aug. 7, followed by final negotiations with the House in September, and a bill sent to President Obama by mid-October. The two chambers are now in the process of assembling initial bills, an unwieldy process that involves five committees and -- increasingly, as the first deadline approaches -- plenty of input from party leaders and the White House.
But Grassley said Reid assured the group that the Senate legislation would not be rushed. Senior Democratic aides are beginning to reassess the July timetable, especially with a Supreme Court confirmation pending. "We've got some flexibility on time," Grassley said.
In both the House and Senate, negotiators are struggling for consensus on how to pay for the private insurance subsidies, Medicaid expansion, and other coverage provisions that Congress is contemplating. The price tag could add up to at least $1 trillion over 10 years.
The health-benefits tax is among the more lucrative revenue sources, valued at up to $400 billion over 10 years, depending on how broadly the tax is applied. Republicans are more receptive than Democrats to the idea, and Sen. John McCain, the 2008 GOP nominee, endorsed it on the campaign trail. But Obama strongly opposed it as a candidate, and he is advocating an alternative measure that would limit deductions on high-income earners.
Democrats don't like the benefits tax because it could target the generous coverage that many middle-class individuals -- in particular union members -- continue to receive from their employers. But Grassley said his GOP colleagues also are balking at the benefits tax, unless Obama reverses course and endorses the idea. "There won't be a single Republican for it, unless the president comes out for it," Grassley said.
Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), one of the lead negotiators, said one option is a tax on benefits valued at above $25,000 per household, an amount double the national average. That would raise about $90 billion in revenue over 10 years. Conrad said the Senate is aiming for a tax package valued at about $320 billion over 10 years, and said lawmakers were debating a menu of measures that target taxpayers in every income category.
Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said the benefits tax remains "on the table," and said Senate negotiators are "making a lot of headway" on restructuring the tax, to minimize its impact on middle-class households.
"There are infinite ways to draft anything. I'm very cognizant of the concerns that senators have about various proposals, and that's the point of this discussion." Baucus said. But he added, "Revenues raisers are always complicated. Nobody likes to raise revenue, but everybody wants to pay for the bill."
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