Maine delegation seeking middle ground on health care

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 8:20 p.m.

Maine’s congressional delegation on Friday expressed mixed responses to President Barack Obama’s televised health care reform summit. Though the event was good for public understanding of the complexity of the reform effort, they agreed, it did little to advance essential change.

They expressed hope, however, that Congress will find meaningful middle ground when it resumes grappling with the issue next week.

The forum was held Thursday at the Blair House in Washington. About 40 lawmakers, selected by their respective party leaders, participated in the daylong summit, airing their considerable differences about the president’s proposed plan but finding little apparent common ground.

None of Maine’s four delegation members attended the event.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, whose sole Republican vote during the long run-up to a final bill has at times been considered pivotal to the reform effort, said she was invited on Wednesday by the White House to participate in the summit but declined.

“Leadership made their decision and I had to respect that process,” she said. She added that she has had many opportunities to debate approaches to health care reform and that it was appropriate for other Senate Republicans to be given the opportunity.

Snowe said it was “not surprising” that she wasn’t asked to participate by Republican leadership, given her qualified support for the contentious legislation when all other GOP members categorically opposed it.

It was Snowe’s participation in the health care reform process, and the prospect of at least one GOP vote, that resulted in a number of Republican amendments being included in the legislation that emerged in October from the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Hers was the only Republican vote in support of the committee bill. But, citing a too-rapid timetable and a lack of transparency, Snowe dropped her endorsement after Senate Democrats substantially revised the proposal before completing it and sending it to the Congressional Budget Office for fiscal analysis.

Snowe said she believed Thursday’s forum was a valuable exercise despite the failure to reach consensus on key issues.

“At least it gave the public some context to the whole debate,” she said Friday. Not since the Finance Committee meetings, she said, has the general public been able to observe the process and hear the complexities of the issue outlined from both parties’ viewpoints. “It is that level of transparency and accountability that is essential and pertinent in discussing legislation of this magnitude,” she said.

Snowe expressed disappointment that summit participants were not able to agree on even a preliminary framework of key reforms, and hope that a future session might result in draft language for a more incremental bill that could draw bipartisan support.

“There really was a lot of agreement there,” she said.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins called the summit “a missed opportunity” to identify and build on mutually acceptable reforms.

“The bitter rhetoric and partisan gridlock of the past year on health care legislation has obscured a very important fact: There are many health care reforms that have overwhelming support in both parties,” she said in a prepared statement.

Collins said Obama’s decision to base the summit on a plan that combines the “flawed” bills produced in the House and Senate “may make the proposal bicameral, but it does nothing to make it bipartisan.” Collins outlined seven proposals she believes could win bipartisan votes for improving health care in the nation, including tax credits for self-employed individuals and small businesses; insurance industry reforms; greater transparency within the health care system; containment of health care costs; and a stronger focus on wellness and disease prevention.

Democratic Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine’s 2nd District said the health reform summit “provided a forum for some public discussion that got beyond the misleading talking points that have poisoned the discussion so far.”

Although many divisions remain, Michaud said, “there is much that members of all political stripes can agree on. Whether it’s expanding choice and affordability of plans to bring down premium prices or reforming unfair [insurance] industry practices like dropping people [from coverage] because they get sick, there is much to build on.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, Maine’s newest and most liberal member of Congress, said the summit performed a valuable public service but did little to advance the legislative process.

“We have been debating these issues for a year and a half, and there are some points no one will move on,” the 1st District Democrat said. “We may be left with two choices: to move ahead even if everybody doesn’t agree, or to stop in our tracks because everybody doesn’t agree.” Given the choice, she said, many Democrats are ready to push the legislation through using a reconciliation process, which eliminates the need for a 60 percent majority vote in the Senate.

“My colleagues are saying more and more, ‘Let’s get this done,’’ she said.

Reconciliation would not be Michaud’s first choice, either, but “the status quo is not only unacceptable, but unsustainable in the long run,” he said.

Both Snowe and Collins decried reconciliation on the grounds that it would result in flawed legislation and a deepening of animosity between the parties.

“Once the Democrats threw down the reconciliation gauntlet, it’s brought forward more politicization and partisanship than would otherwise have been the case,” Snowe said.

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