Public Option Vote Could Pit Democrat Vs. Democrat

Public Option Vote Could Pit Democrat vs. Democrat

Scroll down to the bottom for updates from the hearing. Follow live coverage of the hearing here.

WASHINGTON � It'll be Democrat vs. Democrat as lawmakers go back to work on health care Tuesday.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to consider whether the government should offer its own insurance plan for the middle class in competition with private carriers. As reporter Jill Lawrence puts it in Politics Daily, "The debate over whether to create a public insurance plan to compete with private plans is about to explode in the Senate Finance Committee. The stakes are high and so is the suspense."

The panel has 13 Democrats and 10 Republicans. Anything less than a solid wall of Republican opposition to all three proposals would be shocking. On top of that, several Democrats have reservations about some or all of the proposals.

By my count, there are nine Democrats in favor of or open to at least one of the three public options. Two favor Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe's proposal for state-level public options to be "triggered" if competition in a state falls short. Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas is a mystery. If she ultimately supports some type of public option, that would make committee chairman Max Baucus the deciding vote. He says he supports a public option but that it couldn't win on the floor.

Although the public plan isn't expected to get a majority of the panel, supporters say at least they'll know where everybody stands.

Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., is already in the hot seat -- accused of being lukewarm, if not downright hostile, to the government option.

Two liberal groups are launching a hard-hitting television and Internet ad featuring a young father from Montana. Bing Perrine, 26, in need of a heart operation, uninsured and deeply in debt, looks straight into the camera and asks Baucus, "Whose side are you on?"

The ad is sponsored by Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who say Baucus is too cozy with insurance and health care interests that have contributed to his campaigns and oppose the public option.

Baucus aide Tyler Matsdorf said the ad falsely implies that Baucus doesn't care about the plight of people with pre-existing health problems. It's just that Baucus would address such problems in a different way from what the liberals want, Matsdorf said. For example, his plan calls for nonprofit co-ops to compete with the insurance industry independently of the government. Insurers also oppose co-ops.

Senators will have at least two Democratic alternatives to choose from � and maybe a compromise from a moderate Republican who is keeping all her options open.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is proposing a public plan modeled on Medicare, in which the government would set what it pays doctors, hospitals and other medical providers.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is proposing a government plan that looks more like a private insurance company and negotiates payment rates with providers.

"Win or lose, it's clear that the strong public interest and support for a public option will be well represented by the supportive senators," said Gerald Shea, a top health care policy expert for the AFL-CIO. "My sense is that our message about how vital the public plan is to the critically important issue of cost control is beginning to break through the bubble that has surrounded Finance for months."

The wild card in the debate is Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. Aides say she's considering offering a compromise that would use the public option as a threat, to be deployed only if private insurers fail to keep premiums in check after a reasonable period of time.

If there's a final bill this year, it's possible that Snowe's idea will be the one to carry the day.

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AP has a brief report on some early remarks from the hearing:

Democrats sought to give government the right to sell insurance in competition with private industry Tuesday as the Senate Finance Committee opened a second week of debate over massive health care legislation.

"We need this option because the insurance companies have failed to meet their obligation" to the public, said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., accusing firms of putting profits over their customers.

He said that without his proposal, consumers would face substantial premium increases once health care legislation takes effect.

Republicans countered that private companies would eventually be forced out of business, and argued that millions would be forced to get their insurance from the government.

"Washington is not the answer," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.


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