President Obama's speech Wednesday night instilled new confidence in the Senate Finance Committee as it works to reach a bipartisan healthcare overhaul agreement, Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus said today.
Baucus noted the similarities between the specifics the president laid out and the deal the six Finance senators have been crafting. A $900 billion price tag; a requirement the bill be deficit neutral; a tax on "Cadillac" insurance plans; and a Medicare commission that would establish money-saving options are among some of the shared proposals.
"The president's speech kind of breathed new life into what we're doing," Baucus said.
As the six work toward a deal, Baucus and Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad described their remaining work as "refinement." The main issues left to negotiate include expanding Medicaid, handling abortion in minimum benefit requirements and addressing medical malpractice.
The group has not tackled medical malpractice, but with Obama conceding in his speech that some changes could bring down healthcare costs, the group is giving it a look. Finance does not have jurisdiction to draft medical malpractice provisions, but Conrad said they would make a suggestion on the topic.
"We're seeing consensus along the line of safe harbor for doctors that use best practices, and this idea of medical courts, use of arbitration to lift a lot of these cases out, is under discussion," Conrad said.
On Medicaid, the group is attempting to find a "sweet spot," as Conrad put it, for how states and the federal government will share the financial burden of the expansion. The group is consulting with governors and CBO and is awaiting CBO numbers today, Conrad said.
Finance staffers are expected to share recommendations on Medicaid, abortion and medical malpractice possibly this afternoon, but at presstime, it remained unclear whether the group will meet again today. Baucus has said he will have a chairman's mark ready next week.
The negotiators also went over their proposal's effect on illegal immigrants today after Obama promised Wednesday the overhaul would not provide coverage for them.
"As we reflected on the president's speech last night, we wanted to go back, drill down again, make sure we had earlier concluded this right on," Conrad said.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Reid said he and other top Democrats saw Obama's speech as "a game changer." Although it did not appear to sway more Republicans, Reid said he is optimistic about winning support of moderate Democrats, some of whom are meeting with Obama this afternoon.
"We're going to be fine with the moderates," said Reid. "I've had a number of conversations with the moderates."
Reid also suggested that Democrats will hang together on cloture votes, and that would be sufficient. "We're talking about procedural votes," he said. One key moderate Democrat, Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, tends to vote with his party on cloture even if he opposes the underlying bill.
This article appears in the September 12, 2009, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.