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A Republican Trap for Democrats on Health Care?

5 years ago
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Are the Democrats about to walk into a Republican trap on health care? As I monitor the latest back and forth, I feel as if I'm watching a cheesy horror flick and some poor unsuspecting person is about to open the wrong door--and you want to scream, "Hey, don't open that door!" But....

In the Senate, the Democrats (presumably with President Barack Obama's blessings) are still trying to win one to three Republican votes for a health care reform package. So as the Gang of Six--that bipartisan group of senators--has continued to negotiate, Senator Max Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the finance committee, has released a "framework" that he says is aimed to address Republican concerns. Yet Democrats should be concerned about his bill.
Here's how The Washington Post described a key component:

Under the Baucus plan, described in a "framework" he released last week, as many as 4 million of the 46 million people who are currently uninsured would be required to buy coverage on their own, without government help, by some estimates. Millions more would qualify for federal tax credits, but could still end up paying as much as 13 percent of their income for insurance premiums -- far more than most Americans now pay for coverage.

People further down the income scale would receive much bigger tax credits, effectively limiting their premiums at 3 percent of their earnings. But experts on affordability say even those families could find it difficult to meet the new mandate without straining their wallets.

With the Baucus plan, a family of four making $66,000 would have to pay $700 a month for government-mandated health insurance coverage. That's more than many people at that income level are used to paying now for whatever health care coverage they have. For a good number of households, this could be a rather weighty obligation.

What's happening is that Baucus, looking to satisfy a handful of Republicans and perhaps a few moderate Democrats, is trying to make the Senate bill ($880 billion over ten years) cheaper than the more generous House bill (more than $1 trillion). But to do that he has to push more of the cost on to middle-class families. Yet how are those families going to feel about this? Will they think kindly of the Democrats? Will they send them a thank-you card once they have to dole out $8400 a year? Maybe. If they think it's a good deal. But maybe not. Perhaps they will be resentful. Perhaps they will be angry. At Democrats.

How does Baucus intend to keep the cost of this mandatory insurance low? He's not for a public option--that is, a government-run insurance program that would compete with private insurance firms and drive down the cost of insurance. Looking to entice one or two GOP senators, he proposes setting up non-profit cooperatives. But no one seems to know quite how these things would work. To sum up: Baucus would compel millions of families to pay more than they are accustomed to without doing everything possible to keep the costs to those families as low as possible. This is one reason why Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), a longtime friend of Baucus, on Tuesday declared he will not vote for Baucus's bill unless a public option is added to it.

Though some Republicans have been ticked off at the GOP half of the Gang of Six--Senators Charles Grassley, Mike Enzi, and Olympia Snowe--the Republicans may owe these legislators their thanks. By flirting with Baucus over the bill, they have moved him to the right, and he's produced a cheaper measure that could cause the Democrats real political problems with working-class families. If the Dems end up forcing people to buy insurance that is financially burdensome (even if necessary), there could be political trouble for them. Politicians rarely do well when they shove spinach down someone's throat.

Baucus and his fellow Democrats ought to proceed carefully. And the Republicans ought to consider letting Baucus have his way.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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