Gang of Six reserving judgment

By Carrie Budoff Brown
|  Tuesday, Sep 8, 2009  |  Updated 3:45 PM CDT
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AP

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley is one of the "Gang of Six" meeting in private today.

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The six senators involved in bipartisan health care talks entered a closely watched meeting this afternoon reserving judgment – publicly, at least. 

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) declined to say where they were headed on a new compromise proposal by Senate Finance chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), which contains elements that both senators have resisted, including the creation of nonprofit insurance cooperatives. 

“I’m going to meet with them to discuss it,” Enzi said. “I hate to think I spent all these hours doing this for nothing.” 

Asked if his reluctance to talk about the plan meant he could not support it, Grassley said: “Oh, come on, don't read anything into anything I say.” 

The “group of six” is meeting for the first time since the August recess, and is expected to huddle privately until early this evening. Baucus is looking for an answer from the senators as to how the group should proceed. The White House is watching the talks closely as well ahead of President Barack  Obama’s address to Congress Wednesday night to see if Baucus’ plan could be the framework for a bipartisan compromise to achieve health reform. 

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who is widely believed to be one of the only Republicans willing to sign onto the Baucus bill, struck a more upbeat note than her fellow Republicans. 

“There are number of promising elements, some of which we have had a consensus on, others we continue to discuss,” Snowe said. 

But as to whether she could support the Baucus proposal, Snowe said “that is still premature.” 

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said there were “a lot of very good ideas in the proposal.” 

“I think it is a very credible proposal and one that is obviously is subject to more discussion,” Bingaman said. 

Baucus sent members of the group a framework for health care legislation that would cost less than $900 billion, levy new fees on insurers and create a network of consumer-owned insurance cooperatives. 

The plan, described as a “framework for consideration,” is the first concrete and comprehensive proposal to come out of the bipartisan talks, which have been ongoing since the spring. 

The proposal does not include a public insurance option, but instead features insurance cooperatives that could appeal to moderate Democrats and perhaps some Republicans. That’s a major difference from bills approved by three House committees and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee. 

Another significant variance with the House bills is the absence of a mandate on employers to provide coverage. Instead, the Baucus plan includes a “free-rider” provision in which employers would contribute to the cost of providing government subsidies for the employees who purchase coverage in a government-organized insurance marketplace known as an exchange, according to the plan circulating among senators. 

Baucus’ plan also is expected to be less generous in terms of subsidies and coverage than those bills – which, along with the absence of the public option, is sure to rankle more liberal Democrats. 

The bipartisan group also is considering a tax on insurance companies that provide expensive coverage plans. And one feature that might help satisfy the more liberal members of the committee is that insurance companies could face a separate new fee to help pay for the plan. It would be determined based on market share, and could raise $6 billion a year starting in 2010, the sources said.

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