WASHINGTON (CN) – Lawmakers voted down an amendment 15-8 Tuesday to add a public option to the health-care reform bill before the Senate Finance Committee, with votes falling largely along party lines. The Democratic chairman voted against the amendment, saying it puts the rest of the bill in jeopardy.
“I can count,” he said before voting against the amendment, saying his job is to pass a bill out of committee that will win 60 votes on the Senate floor.
He said the health-care bill before the committee will serve as a foundation for health-care reform, but that he thinks the public option will impede the bill.
“Rome was not built in a day,” he said, suggesting that a public option will have to wait until later.
Another public option amendment, introduced by New York Democrat Charles Schumer, is now up for debate. “Let the best plan win,” Schumer said, with his being the only plan left.
After debating the bill most of last week, today marks the first time in 15 years that the committee has taken five days to markup a bill.
“We are clearly giving this bill the due consideration it deserves,” Chairman Max Baucus said, a Montana Democrat.
So far, the committee has addressed roughly 60 of the 564 amendments proposed.
Republicans argued that a public option would eliminate competition by outcompeting private insurers, and said the option would ultimately become a single-payer plan.
Democrats argued that a public option would give choice to consumers, and that it would stimulate competition in a currently uncompetitive market.
West Virginia Democrat Sen. John Rockefeller introduced his failed amendment to add what has widely been called a public option to the health-care bill. He described it as a free-market plan, even as a “Republican plan.” He said the federal government won’t be able to set rates or premiums, and that it will be run by a non-profit group.
But the debate seemed to center around a public option in general, and less about the specifics of the amendment.
“Seventy percent of the American people want this,” Rockefeller said of the public option.
According to a recently published New York Times report, 65 percent of Americans would support a government-administered health insurance plan.
Running way over his allotted time, Rockefeller repeated many times that “this will be optional,” he said. “Nobody has to do this.” He predicted that only 5 percent of Americans will decide to adopt the plan, at least for now.
Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, spoke out against the public option. “I think it is a slow walk towards government controlled, single-payer healthcare.”
He also mirrored long-held republican concerns that “a government-run plan will ultimately run private insurers out of business,” saying the government will regulate the market to favor the plan, putting private companies at a disadvantage.
New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez appeared to dismiss such a worry. “We all know that insurance companies can compete at a lower price point,” he said, “but they just don’t have to right now.”
Menendez added that in many places, only one or two companies in the market, combating Republican arguments that a public option would diminish competition.
In a 2008 report by the American Medical Association found that Wellpoint Inc. accounted for 71 percent of the Maine market and that runner-up Aetna made up 12 percent.
But Grassley expressed worry over what would happen to doctors and hospitals under a public plan. “Doctors and physicians are underpaid by public plans,” he said, noting the difficulty in keeping rural hospitals open already. He expressed doubt that these hospitals could survive if they are paid less.
Schumer took Grassley up on his criticism of government plans. “The main knock you’ve made on Sen. Rockefeller’s amendment, and I assume on mine, is that its government run,” he said. “Medicare is government run.” “You’re supportive of Medicare. I just don’t understand the difference.”
Grassley expressed his support of Medicare, calling it “part of the social fabric of America,” but he maintained that it’s far from perfect.
Schumer called Grassley’s comments “a bit of a contradiction.”
The committee has a long day, with plans to break for dinner and return at 7:15pm.