Senators push for more time on health care

Posted July 16, 2009, at 8:02 p.m.

Maine’s moderate Republican senators have urged President Obama to back off from his end-of-the-month deadline for passage of comprehensive national health reform legislation in both the House and Senate.

Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, whose support is seen as essential to passing the bipartisan legislation the president has called for, met with Obama separately at the White House this week.

Snowe said the Senate Finance Committee, on which she serves and which is charged with drafting the comprehensive legislation and finding a way to pay for it, needs more time to refine the measure and build support for it.

“My message to the president is that it is critical that we all share in the goal of what we’re trying to accomplish, but the impact of this legislation on health care and the economy demands that we get it right,” said Snowe, who met Thursday morning with Obama.

“We’re working with a sense of urgency — we’re certainly not dragging our feet,” she said in a telephone interview Thursday. But the “monumental, Herculean task” of reforming health care, and its profound financial implications for the nation, call for an extended time frame and a more deliberative process, she said.

It is reasonable to think the committee could vote out a bipartisan bill before the August recess, Snowe said, giving lawmakers time to read through it and build support among their constituents before reconvening in September.

The August break also would allow time to merge the Finance Committee bill with legislation already drafted in the Senate health committee, and for the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to compute the economic impact of the proposal.

“We would return in September, ready to hit the ground running and debate the bill on the floor of the Senate,” Snowe said.

Bills passed in the House and the Senate would then be merged into a single reform package. Obama has said he aims to have the process completed by the end of this year.

Snowe said she and Obama share common ground on what she terms a “safety net plan” — a government-run insurance provider that would compete with private insurance companies. Snowe’s version of this “public option,” as it is more commonly known, would be available in states where private insurance companies fail to offer an acceptable range of affordable plans.

Most Democrats favor a public option that would be available regardless of what private insurers offer. Almost all Republicans argue that such a plan would undercut the health insurance industry and call the inclusion of any public option in the reform legislation a deal-breaker. It is Snowe’s support of a limited version of the controversial public option, among other things, that makes her a valuable Republican ally for Obama.

Collins, who met with Obama on Wednesday, issued a statement saying they had “discussed the contents, the goals and the timetable for health care reform legislation.”

Like Snowe, Collins said she urged Obama not to set an “artificial deadline” for passing health reform legislation.

“We must proceed in a deliberate, bipartisan and careful fashion. Rushed legislation won’t be nearly as well thought out as it should be, it will cost more than it should, and the process will be divisive,” Collins said.

Thursday also marked the release of the opinion of the Congressional Budget Office that the cost of health reform proposals released earlier this month by House Democrats and the Senate health committee would not reduce the steep trajectory of federal health care spending.

On the contrary, the proposals would significantly expand federal responsibility for health care costs, said CBO director Douglas Elmendorf.

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