Kennedy, Baucus Deny a Split on Health Care Reform

A significant split “has developed between the two Democratic senators leading efforts to remake the nation’s health care system,” the New York Times reports.  The Senators, of course, are Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).

According to the article, they “disagree over the contours of a public health insurance plan, the most explosive issue in the debate.”

Kennedy:

One of the senators, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, reasserting himself after months of treatment for brain cancer, made clear this week that he favored a robust public health care plan, a government-sponsored entity that would compete with private insurers.

As a starting point for his bill, Mr. Kennedy favors a public plan that looks like Medicare, the government-run program for older Americans created in 1965, when he was a young senator.

Baucus:

By contrast, Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who is chairman of the Finance Committee, has been working for months with the panel’s senior Republican, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, in the hope of forging a bipartisan bill, which would probably play down the option of a public plan.

Mr. Grassley opposes creation of a new government insurance program and says “we cannot afford the public health plan we have already,” referring to Medicare.

President Obama:

President Obama has championed a public plan, saying it would help “keep the private sector honest,” though he has indicated he will be flexible on the details.

The possible compromise:

Democrats on the Finance Committee said Mr. Baucus was exploring a possible compromise. Under this proposal, the public plan would be created only if private insurance companies had not made meaningful, affordable coverage available to all Americans within several years.

Senate Democrats said they believed that Mr. Baucus might settle for this “fallback plan,” which could win some support on both sides of his committee, from people like Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democrat, and Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, a Republican.

Passage of comprehensive health legislation this year is a top priority for Mr. Baucus and Mr. Kennedy, the chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. So they may be able to resolve their differences, aides said.

The split seems to reflect “not only political differences between the two men but also differences between their committees, racing to write the most ambitious health care legislation in the nation’s history.”

Over all, Democrats on the Finance Committee tend to be more moderate than those on the health committee, which includes more Democrats who identify themselves as liberals or progressives. The two Senate panels are drafting separate bills that are to be merged before going to the Senate floor.

But alas, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is also talking up his own plan as a possible compromise between the two health care reform leaders.

Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the third-ranking member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said Friday, “It’s pretty certain that Senator Kennedy could not support the Baucus plan, and Senator Baucus could not support the Kennedy plan.” But Mr. Schumer said “it’s possible” that both could support a version he is developing.

Under Mr. Schumer’s proposal, any new public plan would have to comply with all the rules and standards that apply to private insurance. A public plan would also have to be self-sustaining, would have to rely on premiums and would not have a pipeline into the federal Treasury.

So is this just an ego thing with everyone grasping for credit or a legitimate disagreement over policy?  Could be both, but you can be the judge.

Meanwhile, Senators Baucus and Kennedy did a little damage control today in response to this article with a joint statement, per Politico:

But shortly after noon Saturday, Baucus and Kennedy released a statement reaffirming their commitment to work together, "despite some media reports to the contrary."

"For both of us, reforming the nation’s health care system to cut cost, improve quality and provide affordable coverage remains the top priority on our two committees," the senators said. "We have worked together closely over many months and will continue to do so. We intend to ensure that our committees report similar and complementary legislation that can be quickly merged into one bill for consideration on the Senate floor before the August recess."

This bill is President Obama’s top priority for the remainder of the year.  He doesn’t think he will ever get as much support from the private and public sector as he has now.  The full court press is on and I think it’s safe to assume that these two key Senators will get together on a compromise version at some point in the near future.

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