WASHINGTON – A key Senate panel twice beat back efforts Tuesday to create a government-run insurance plan, dealing a crippling blow to the hopes of liberals seeking to expand the federal role in health coverage as a cornerstone of reform.
In a signal moment in the increasingly fractious debate over reforming the nation’s sprawling health care system, Senate Finance Committee members rejected two amendments to create a public option on votes of 15 to 8 and 13 to 10.
Committee Chairman Max Baucus, of Montana, was one of three Democrats who voted no on both proposals. Baucus, who has emerged as the central player in shaping the bill, which is likely to be the main vehicle for debate on the Senate floor, said he supports the principle of a public option as an alternative to private insurance. But he warned that including it could doom the bill to a Republican filibuster.
“No one has been able to show me how we count up to 60 votes with a public option,” Baucus said. “I want a bill that can become law.”
The votes are likely to deepen fissures in the Democratic Party over the shape of the legislation, and they proved what critics have long argued: Moderate Democrats are reluctant to expand the federal health care role beyond the current boundaries of the Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Affairs programs. Even President Barack Obama, who has repeatedly supported a government-run plan in public statements, has indicated that the idea is not worth the price of failing to enact his biggest domestic policy goal.
Despite the setback for advocates of a public option, debate over such a plan is certain to continue. Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who offered Tuesday’s failed amendments, are sure to reintroduce their proposals when legislation comes to the floor, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could include a government plan when he combines the Finance Committee’s bill with Senate health committee legislation, approved in July, that includes a public option.
Aides said Tuesday that Reid has not made a decision on how to proceed. If he doesn’t, backers of a government plan will seek to amend the bill when it advances to the Senate floor, or during final negotiations with the House, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., remains a staunch advocate.
Supporters vowed to press on, expressing confidence that backing will grow as lawmakers consider the implications of relying on private insurers to bring about the sweeping reforms that many in Congress envision. Controlling the skyrocketing costs of health care is one of the primary goals of the push for reform, and many Democrats believe that only the government has the clout to drive down premiums while ridding the system of costly inefficiencies.