WASHINGTON (CN) – Lawmakers on Tuesday rejected amendments that would add a public option to the health care bill now before the Senate Finance Committee. Democratic Chairman Max Baucus voted against the amendments, saying they put the rest of the bill in jeopardy. “I can count,” Baucus, D-Mont., said before voting. Baucus said his job is to pass a bill out of committee that will win 60 votes in the Senate.
He called the health-care bill before the committee a foundation for health-care reform, but said 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.
The amendment that lost first, was introduced by West Virginia Democrat Rockefeller, and lost 15-8. The second amendment was introduced by New York Democrat Charles Schumer, and lost 13-10, winning two additional Democratic votes.
After debating the bill most of last week, today marks the first time in 15 years that the committee has taken five days to mark up a bill.
“We are clearly giving this bill the due consideration it deserves,” Baucus said.
So far, the committee has addressed just more than 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, morphing into another financial burden on the government.
Democrats argued that a public option would give choice to consumers, and that it would stimulate competition in a currently uncompetitive market. They also proposed it as a way of providing reasonably priced insurance in the midst of skyrocketing prices, and maintained the plan would pay for itself.
Rockefeller, a Democrat, introduced his 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,” saying the federal government won’t be able to set rates or premiums, and that it will be run by a non-profit group.
After Rockefeller’s proposal was voted down, Schumer did not introduce his amendment in very much detail, and there was little additional debate before his amendment was put to a vote.
This was likely because the debate centered around a public option in general, and less about the specifics of the amendments.
“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 a public option would be optional. “Nobody has to do this.” He predicted that only 5 percent of Americans will decide to adopt the plan, at least for now.
But Arizona Republican Jon Kyl said the public plan wouldn’t be optional, arguing that employers would force their employees onto the cheaper public plan.
Ranking Member Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, called the public plan “a slow walk towards government controlled, single-payer healthcare,” mirroring 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.”
Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, holding up a map circulated by Democrats, made the point that competition is already weak, clashing with Republican arguments that the amendments would diminish competition.
The map showed that in Maine, one company dominates 88 percent of the market, and that in Montana, one company controls 85 percent of the market. A similar situation exists in Arkansas, where a company dominates 81 percent of the market.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot of competition to me,” he said.
Texas Republican John Cornyn joined many Republicans in comparing the public option to Medicare, and said the public option would subject the government to even more financial burdens.
Kyl, a Republican warned that the public option “is going to be too big to fail,” and that “taxpayers will have to back it up.” Wyoming Republican John Ensign agreed, noting that “these government programs start and they grow and they grow.”
Republicans are trying to scare people by talking “about a public plan that is not being talked about here,” Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry said. He pointed out that unlike entitlements, the public option would not be able to have government subsidies. “That’s prohibited,” he said.
“What are we scared of?” he asked. “That Americans might like a competitive plan that is paying for itself?” and suggested that public option opponents who argue for more freedom of choice are hypocritical.
Grassley, a Republican, 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, a Democrat, took Grassley up on his criticism of government plans. “The main knock you’ve made on 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.”
Republicans continued to have more confidence in the private sector than the Democrats.
“I fundamentally disagree that the government should be competing with the private sector,” Ensign said.
And Cornyn argued that there already is a system in place, state insurance commissioners, to keep a hand on insurance companies.
“If the state insurance commissioners are doing such a good job, then why are insurance premiums going through the roof?” Schumer asked forcefully.
Insurance rates have gone up 120 percent in the last ten years, read a sign held up by Democratic aides.
In a short but charged speech before a vote on his amendment, Schumer said that Americans, who are currently covered by private insurance they like, or by Medicare, still need a public option.
“Medicare’s going broke,” he said, and that private insurance costs are going up faster than Medicare. He predicted that in 7 years, Medicare will fail, and that in three to five years, businesses will begin dropping health insurance because of the high costs.
The Senate Finance Committee on a whole, though, appears to disagree that the public options proposed are the right solution.
The committee set an ambitious schedule to tackle the many remaining amendments, with plans to break for dinner and return at 7:15pm.