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Finance Mark-Up Begins

September 22, 2009 - by Donny Shaw

Health care reform enters a critical moment today. Since the beginning of the year, Congress has settled on a basic framework for reform, four congressional committees have approved health care bills, and the public has reviewed and discussed the legislation more than any issue that has come through Congress in the past decade. Today, health care legislation moves into its final congressional committee – the one that’s likely to produce the framework for a compromise designed to actually break a Republican filibuster and pass the Senate.

The Senate Finance Committee sits down in full today to begin debating and amending the health care bill that Chairman Sen. Max Baucus [D, MT] and a group of six bipartisan committee members have worked out over months of closed-door negotiations. The committee includes most of the Senate’s most influential centrists from both parties. Their challenge is to amend the base bill so that it wins the support of the centrists without losing the support of liberal Democrats on the left.

It’s an especially daunting task when you consider that, as it stand, neither liberal Democrats nor centrist Republicans in the committee support the bill. Most amendments that the committee could approve would shift support in one direction or the other. Somehow, through some as of yet unimagined combination of amendments, they have to find a way to swell support from the center of the committee out.

They are beginning the markup with a record-breaking 564 amendments pending and a vague vision for a compromise involving centrist Sen. Olympia Snowe’s [R, ME] public option “trigger” provision. There is also reason to believe that Democrats will soften in their demands as the bill moves forward in the committee. For example, Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin [D, IL], one of the most progressive Democrats in the Senate, sees a “variation” of the public option as a likely grounds for compromise that Democrats can accept.

Heading into today’s mark-up, Sen. Baucus made some last minute changes to the bill he released last week. The changes are designed to ease the financial burden on the middle class that his bill could cause by increasing subsidies and lowering penalties for people that don’t get insurance. The changes could help shore up some support in his committee, but they would increase the bill’s relatively low cost, which was just about the only thing it had going for it.

Baucus is saying that he expects the mark-up to be done by the end of the week. My guess is it will take at least twice as long as that. The committee’s job right now is, essentially, to rewrite Congress’ health care bill based on months of public discourse, and to do it in a way that will get it through Congress and onto President Obama’s desk to be signed into law. This mark-up and the private dealings that will go on behind the scenes is the crux of Congress’ work on health care. If they succeed, health care reform will almost surely happen this year. If they fail, the Democrats will have to reconsider their position and push smaller reforms or take a gamble and try to push something through a Democrats-only bill with the budget reconciliation process.

Here are the links you need for following this week’s Senate Finance Committee mark-up:

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