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Confusion Over ‘Deal’ Continues

Senators Still Awaiting Details

Democratic Senators involved in crafting what Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) described as a “broad agreement— on health care policy appear to be at odds over both the policy proscriptions and the notion that they had even reached such a deal.

Though Reid announced late Tuesday that negotiations among a group of 10 liberal and moderate Democratic Senators had largely resolved the intraparty standoff over the public insurance option, participants in the group said their “agreement— had been mischaracterized and that they agreed only to send the proposal to the Congressional Budget Office for a cost estimate, saying more information was necessary before making any firm decisions.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), a key centrist, said the group of 10 — of which she was a participant — felt they had to move forward with something. She said negotiators had hit a wall and needed CBO scores in order to determine whether any deal was workable.

“We worked very hard and we worked collaboratively to try to come up with solutions and listen to one another,— Lincoln said. “We got to a point where we couldn’t go any further until we got CBO scores. And so, all of the different ideas and things that were on the table — in order to move to something that was more final, we couldn’t get to without CBO scores.—

Similarly, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a liberal in the group, said the “general consensus— that was reached Tuesday night was more “to move the bill forward— given that Reid hopes to pass a package by Christmas and the CBO scoring process could take at least a week.

“We came to sort of agreement in principle … and then everything does have to get rushed to CBO in order to finish this up in time,— explained Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), one of the liberal participants.

Several other Democratic negotiators were quick to push back against the notion that they had shaken hands on anything.

“I didn’t sign on to the agreement,— said Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), another group participant.

“There’s no specific compromise. There were discussions,— Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said. “Until the package that was sent is scored, we really don’t even know what’s in it.—

Some of the reluctance to say a deal had been reached appeared to surround whether negotiators had agreed to any of the public insurance options that have been floated.

One source said the last sticking point in the negotiations was whether to include a provision that would allow the government to create a public option if private insurers decline to participate in a government-sponsored exchange. The source said it’s likely the group will send two of those “trigger— proposals to CBO — one that would be a national public option and one that would be state-based.

The underlying bill includes an exchange that would allow insurers to compete for uninsured and small business customers. But it appears the Democratic group sent the CBO a proposal that would allow the Office of Personnel Management to run the exchange as well as prohibit private companies from making more than a minimal profit.

Rockefeller indicated that liberals were dubious of a state-based public option trigger, but that sweeping national insurance regulations — such as restrictions on profit margins — could be in the works, something he said might obviate the need for a public option.

“The so-called state based public option is not clear to some of us exactly what that means,— Rockefeller said. “There were some people there who said you can do that with a relatively small population base. There are others like myself who aren’t so sure about that. But in any event, if we get certain things done in health insurance regulation, none of that will make any difference because it will be stronger than the public option so far.—

However, Rockefeller declined to give details, given that Reid has asked Members to keep quiet until he has time to review and possibly tweak the proposal they sent to the CBO.

While the group of five liberals and five moderates quibbled over their own product, other wavering Senators appeared skeptical of what they know of the deal.

Asked whether the confusion over a public option was more semantics than policy-driven, Harkin quipped, “What’s in a name?—

Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who has threatened to filibuster the final bill if a public option — triggered or not — is included, cited several possible concerns with the hybrid plan

“The problem is that I’ve heard about three or four different versions of it,— Lieberman said. “I’ve been very clear for months that I’m for health care reform. But I don’t want us, as part of it, to create what I consider to be an unnecessary and costly government-run insurance option. And that includes one that would be triggered.—

“It sounded last night from the proposals being discussed that they met that test — that the public option was basically gone,— Lieberman continued. “But then this morning the papers were saying it’s still in. So, I’ve got to wait and see.—

Lieberman suggested he was open to creating a national marketplace of health insurance plans similar to what is available to federal employees that would be administered by the OPM.

On the possible proposal to increase access to Medicare by allowing individuals ages 55 to 64 to buy into the program, Lieberman indicated it depends on how it is structured. “It’s an interesting idea, but a lot of questions have to be asked about it,— he said.

Another potential swing vote, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), has indicated the Medicare buy-in proposal may be a non-starter with her.

Questions around the proposal continued Wednesday night at a special Democratic caucus called to explain the details of the potential compromise. A few rounds of applause could be heard coming from the Lyndon B. Johnson Room, where the closed-door session was held, and one Democrat described the discussion as a cheerleading session.

“There was no explanation,— Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said after the caucus. “It was sort of ‘go team go.’ You’ve been there, done that.—

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said she has concerns that the group is considering expanding Medicare, but she said those concerns are based on what she’s read in the newspaper, not on what she heard in Wednesday’s special caucus. Senators indicated that any decisions on how to move forward on compromise are on hold pending the release of a CBO score.

“We didn’t discuss any more details,— she said.

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