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Senate panel rejects government-run insurance option

Associated Press | 9/30/2009, 4:59 a.m.

WASHINGTON — In a long-anticipated showdown, liberal Democrats twice failed on Tuesday to inject a government-run insurance option into sweeping health care legislation taking shape in the Senate, despite bipartisan agreement that private insurers must change their ways.

The two votes marked a victory for Montana Democrat Max Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, who is hoping to push his middle-of-the-road measure through the panel by week’s end. It also kept alive the possibility that at least one Republican may yet swing behind the overhaul, a key goal of both Baucus and the White House.

“My job is to put together a bill that gets to 60 votes” in the full Senate, Baucus said shortly before he joined a majority on the committee in defeating efforts to rewrite a key portion of his draft legislation.

“No one shows me how to get to 60 votes with a public option,” he said, using the term used to describe a new government role in health care. It would take 60 votes in the 100-member Senate to overcome any filibuster Republicans might attempt.

Supporters of a new role for government repeatedly accused private insurers of placing profits over coverage, and said they would try for a federal option again when the full Senate votes.

“With some work and some compromise, we can get the 60 votes on the floor of the Senate that will make our system better by providing for a strong, fair and viable public option,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who backed one of the proposals rejected Tuesday.

A combination of Baucus, moderate Democratic allies and all committee Republicans combined to defeat both amendments.

The maneuvering occurred as the committee plunged into a second week of public debate on legislation that generally adheres to conditions that President Barack Obama has called for.

The bill includes numerous new consumer protections, including a ban on companies denying insurance on the basis of pre-existing conditions. At the same time it provides government subsidies to help lower-income Americans afford insurance that is currently beyond their means. It also includes steps that supporters say will begin to slow the growth in health care costs nationwide.

Obama has urged lawmakers to hold the cost of legislation to about $900 billion over a decade. That’s significantly more than House committees originally envisioned in measures cleared earlier in the year, and the leadership has been working in recent days to find ways to cut costs.

“It’s hard work but we’re determined to get it down,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said of the price tag after a marathon closed-door meeting.

The health care debate is intensely political, and lawmakers in both parties used Tuesday’s debate to seek campaign funds as they near the close of the third quarter of the year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., issued a recent appeal for funds for his re-election bid, saying, “Delaying reform to protect insurance companies’ profits is completely unacceptable to Nevadans, the American people and me.”