Health Bills! Health Bills!

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The Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee has officially filed legislative language for the bill that it expects to begin writing next week, so that it can meet a Senate rule that requires it to do so seven days in advance of markup. (I’d throw in a link here, but the one they included doesn’t work.) But the bill is missing some of its vital organs. Most notably, there is no mention of a public plan. Earlier memos describing the bill had a very strong version, one that would look very much like Medicare. Committee officials say they are still working on those sections.

Meanwhile, the three key committee chairmen in the House–a chamber generally regarded as more liberal than the Senate–have released the outlines of a bill that includes a significantly weaker public option than the one the HELP Committee had been looking at. According to the sketchy document: “The public health insurance option is self-sustaining and competes on ‘level field” with private insurers.” This idea–where the public option would have to subsist on its own premiums, and live under the same regulations as private insurance companies–is one that many in the insurance industry say (at least privately) that they could live with. It is also a surprisingly conservative and cautious approach for the House to be taking. But I’m told it’s the most the three chairmen thought thought they could get passed by the House Democratic Caucus.

So it seems even less likely that a more ambitious public plan could get through the more conservative Senate. Is the HELP Committee getting weak at the knees on this idea, which has become the most controversial question in the entire health care debate? With Chairman Ted Kennedy ill, did his staff write a bill that went too far? That’s certainly the speculation we are hearing from the Republicans. Jay Newton-Small reports this comment from Senator Orrin Hatch: “Well, it’s a very complex set of problems and the way the HELP committee is going about it is the staff is writing it. They’re putting every liberal approach in that they possibly can.” We won’t know for sure until we see the bill they actually produce next week.