Report from the Front: Health-Care Markup

I was in the Finance Committee Health Care Markup along with my partner in crime, Jeremy, so I thought I’d pass on a few noteworthy nuggets.

(UPDATE: Jeremy was also livetweeting the events. You can find him on Twitter @jkoul.)

First, the Republican talking points of the day. (I begin with these because all the Republicans repeated them in some form. I started to wish a conductor would appear so they could sing them in unison. It would have saved time.)

1) The White House and Democratic Leadership are rushing us—all of them except Max Baucus, who is a nice guy saddled with a pushy impatient reckless party. The American people are entitled to a meticulous process, not an artificial deadline. Obama should delay, step back, take a breath, back up, and turn around.

2) This bill expands the deficit, costs too much, and puts too great a tax burden on American families.

3) This bill expands government too much. It focuses on Washington, not on a) our families b) the states c)our individualistic American culture which won’t accept a bill of this nature

4) Americans have rejected this health care legislation: didn’t you see the town halls? (often reiterated)

5) Obama made a promise not to put in new taxes on anybody who makes under $250,000 and this bill does that. Obama made a promise that anybody who likes their insurance can keep it but this bill subtly and covertly taxes people for choosing plans other than the public plan (which is odd, since the bill doesn’t include a public plan. I think maybe they were confusing the Baucus bill with HR 3200). Obama intends to break his promises and is untrustworthy.

6) “government takeover” “federally-funded abortions” (repeat as necessary)

Now you’ve got the Republicans’ basic framework. I’m offering a prize to somebody who can turn it into a doo-wop song called “Reconciliation.”

Other interesting nuggets, of a political nature:

In Grassley’s introductory speech, he said the following:
“On August 6th, the five members of this committee and I met with the President. I told Obama that I had to have him say to me that he would be willing to admit publicly that there would be no government-run plan if there was going to be bipartisan support.”

So I guess now we know where Obama’s mid-August backtracking on the public option came from.

In Rockefeller’s introductory speech, he said he was confident they could pass a bill because “…there is a kind of new spirit. We had an incredible meeting last night on our side, a very good discussion.” Now, you might think that was bad news, and that Rockefeller had been brought into the fold by Baucus. But Rockefeller is still speaking out for the public option–more strongly than anyone other than Stabenow and Schumer. Therefore, when *he* says he’s confident, and that they had a really good meeting, I take that as good news.

One last telling incident:

There was a significant dust-up around 5 p.m. Snowe started it by asking the CBO head if he would have a score for the modified mark before they voted on it. This led into a discussion of how long it would take the CBO to score the modified mark. The poor CBO head, whose people had been given 500+ amendments to Baucus’ original bill 48 hours before, said that for a preliminary scoring, like that which the CBO had done for the original Baucus bill, it would take a few days, but that for a complete, final ranking of the modified bill, it would take two weeks. This answer obviously shocked Baucus, and played right into the Republicans’ talking point of “we need to delay; the White House is too impatient; we need to do this methodically.” Baucus said “It can’t be that different than what you did for the preliminary analysis, can it?” at which point I actually began to feel sorry for him, because I realized that Baucus didn’t want delay–in fact, he *emphatically* did not want delay. I was sorry for him at that point because I realized that he had not just been delaying the process all summer on purpose; he hadn’t been acting in bad faith; for all his faults, and ties to the insurance industry, he did have a desire to get a bill out of committee and believed he could get a bipartisan bill out. That, in short, he really had been played. Unbelievable as that is to me, given that he is a 30-year veteran of the Senate and a major power broker!

And Baucus seems to be growing a bit disillusioned with his Republican colleagues. Though he was obviously still wooing Snowe, making a staffer who was reading the amendments note that one of Snowe’s amendments had been accepted rather than skipping over it, he spoke little to Grassley. Most notable of all, he shook his head in disgust over Ensign’s wingnuttery, when the Nevada senator went on and on about how the fees the bill provides for—fines to punish the people who refuse to buy insurance—are actually “taxes” in disguise, and that the proof of that is that they are collected by the IRS. Now don’t get me wrong; I don’t particularly like mandates myself, especially not in the Baucus bill, which has no public option. But fines for breaking the law *are not taxes*, and only the wingnuttish need to repeat Republican buzzwords over and over could make Ensign say they are. I thought Baucus’ willingness to show open disapproval of his Republican colleagues on television was significant.

As soon as Snowe asked the initial question about the CBO, my friend leaned over and whispered to me: “This is a wedge. She’s going to drive a wedge in,” meaning, of course, that Snowe was using the CBO’s plight as a tool to push the Republican theme of delay. Afterwards, we realized that, despite the timely nature of Snowe’s question, we really didn’t have proof that she had been acting in bad faith all along—it’s possible she simply didn’t want to vote on something that hadn’t been thoroughly analyzed by the CBO. However, I propose that it’s unlikely that she’d have no idea that the CBO would have difficulty scoring all those amendments, with all their possible interactions, on a bill of this magnitude, in a few days. Particularly since, in her introductory speech, she stated: “With more than 500 amendments, we are at the beginning not the end, and we will want the CBO to rank the final mark.” On the other hand, Max Baucus apparently didn’t know that the CBO could not do that—so anything is possible.

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