Senators working to give President Barack Obama a comprehensive health care overhaul said Thursday they had figured out how to pare back the complex legislation to keep costs from crashing through a $1 trillion, 10-year ceiling.
The announcement from Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and other lawmakers amounted to a small, parting gift to Obama on his top domestic priority as Congress prepares to leave town for its weeklong July 4 recess. It moved Congress a bit closer to a deal on legislation to lower costs and provide coverage to nearly 50 million Americans who lack it.
It also capped two weeks of tough going for health care negotiations on Capitol Hill as price tags as high as $1.6 trillion over 10 years sent senators back to the drawing board and forced deadlines to be repeatedly reset.
"We have options that would enable us to write a $1 trillion bill, fully paid for," Baucus said at a news conference.
Baucus declined to detail how the costs were being cut, but options included difficult sacrifices like potentially delaying an expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state program for the poor.
Illegal immigrants excluded
Others have said the changes made in recent days would lower the cost of government subsidies for those who cannot afford insurance, as well as pare back a planned 10-year series of rate increases for doctors serving Medicare patients.
Aides said the Congressional Budget Office had estimated that the elements under consideration would extend coverage to 97 percent of the population, excluding illegal immigrants.
But even Democrats acknowledged that Thursday's announcement fell fall short of a final deal on legislation to meet Obama's goals.
"There's not a final bill that's agreed to. What there is now is a clear path to having a bill that is paid for," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., one of seven Republican and Democratic Finance Committee senators who've been working closely on the deal.
Baucus has dubbed the group "the coalition of the willing." All seven issued a brief, joint statement later Thursday claiming progress, even though some Republicans involved made no secret of their skepticism.
"We have not seen language (of legislation) in any way shape or form," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, one member of the group. He questioned how Baucus could claim to be cutting costs before a bill was finalized and claimed it amounted to "gimmickry."
The Finance Committee had hoped to pass a bill by now, but given the setbacks of recent weeks Thursday's announcement was seen as progress. Of the five House and Senate panels writing health care bills, Finance is the only one with a real chance of producing a bipartisan bill, something Obama has repeatedly said he wants.
Committee back to work in July
The committee will resume work when lawmakers return to Washington after July 4.
The House will also continue work on a partisan bill that embraces Democratic priorities, and similar legislation is taking shape in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
All the bills envision new requirements for all Americans to have health insurance, and prohibitions against insurance companies denying people care.
Still unsettled are the divisive questions of whether to create a new public plan to compete against private insurers, and what types of requirements employers should face to offer coverage to their workers.
Across from the Capitol Thursday, hundreds of people, including actress Edie Falco, rallied for health care overhaul.
Organizing for America, Obama's political operation within the Democratic National Committee, plans thousands of service events around the country Saturday aimed at building support for health care overhaul among a restive public wary of higher costs, lower quality and a price tag that will swell the federal deficit.