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Reid Maneuvers on Medicare Boxes in the GOP

Under fire for their role in blocking the Medicare “doctors’ fix,” Republicans appear to be looking for a reason to vote for the bill today, but Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) isn’t making that task any easier.

“I’m talking to Republicans who would very much like to vote for this,” said Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who has been trying, along with Reid, to find one Republican to switch his or her vote to give Democrats the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

Although Baucus reiterated his belief that Democrats have “a very good chance” at finding that vote, GOP Senators who have been targeted by physicians’ and seniors’ groups tied their willingness to change their vote to the possibility that Reid would allow them to offer amendments.

Reid said Tuesday there was “not a chance in the world” he would do that.

“They have had weeks and months” to consider the measure, Reid said. “It seems a little unusual to me that … they want to change it now, send it back to the House. And every day that it’s not passed, seniors are being affected, doctors are being affected, and veterans are being affected.”

A scheduled 10.6 percent pay cut for Medicare doctors went into effect July 1, but the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will not begin processing new Medicare claims until mid-month, a scenario that gives Congress time to reverse the decrease in the reimbursement rates. Democrats have argued that to save time, the Senate should concur with a bipartisan House measure that has nonetheless drawn a veto threat from President Bush.

Because of that veto threat, Republicans have said the Senate needs to pursue a 31-day short-term measure to prevent the physicians’ pay cut while Baucus and Finance ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) hammer out a compromise. Senate Republicans are expected to discuss this afternoon’s vote at their weekly policy luncheon today.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told reporters he was holding out hope that Democrats would agree to debate a few amendments, including his bill to permanently fix the doctors’ reimbursement schedule. The House bill would push off the pay cut for another 18 months, after which doctors would face a nearly 20 percent decrease in reimbursements for Medicare, Cornyn said.

Asked how he would vote today, Cornyn said, “It depends on what the opportunities are. I don’t know whether the Majority Leader will allow us an opportunity to offer amendments.”

After he voted to block the measure on June 26, the Texas Medical Association withdrew its endorsement of Cornyn.

Similarly, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) left open the possibility that he would vote to consider the bill if Reid allows amendments, and he showed no signs Tuesday of backing off of that position. Specter became a target of the American Medical Association and AARP because he originally voted in favor of bringing up a similar bill the week of June 16.

Specter and Cornyn have taken perhaps the most heat from the AMA and AARP. However, Republican Senators in New Hampshire, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wyoming were also targeted by AMA ads and a grass-roots lobbying campaign during the week of July Fourth.

White House and Senate Republican objections to the bill center on Democratic plans to pay for rescinding the planned pay cut. The House bill would make changes and cuts to Medicare Advantage, which, unlike the regular Medicare program, is run by health insurance companies.

Reid argued Tuesday that health insurers can afford to take a cut and that Republicans are only fighting for the Medicare Advantage program because they want to privatize the entire Medicare program.

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