The Congressional Budget Office: “It’s Complicated!”

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The first day of the Senate Finance Committee’s health reform markup started around 9 a.m. and wrapped up at 10 p.m. Most of the day was spent on opening statements from committee members. But after that was done, Chairman Max Baucus moved on to questions for Congressional Budget Director Doug Elmendorf.

Baucus is trying to move fast on the bill, hoping for a committee vote on it by week’s end. That goal alone may prove challenging – the committee barely got to a few of the approximately 500 amendments offered by members before the first day of markup ended. But even if the committee can get a vote on the bill by Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will then have to reconcile the Baucus bill with the health reform bill from the Senate’s HELP Committee and then bring the resulting legislation to the floor for a full vote. Reid too wants this to happen quickly, but the CBO, the non-partisan government entity that determines the impact of legislation on the federal budget, may have thrown a wrench into the short timeline imagined by Democrats.

Amendments to the Baucus bill were filed by 5 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 18 and on Tuesday the chairman released a modified bill that incorporated some of those amendments, including some that affect revenues and spending levels. As I explained in an earlier post, the new Baucus bill increases affordability, lowers the excise tax on Americans who don’t get insurance, and gives states more money to pay for Medicaid, among other provisions.

But CBO Director Elmendorf and his staff appeared before the committee Tuesday to explain his analysis of the original Baucus bill, not the modified version. This seemed not to matter to committee members, who peppered Elmendorf with questions about how much the new bill and their amendments would cost. Several times, Elmendorf said he couldn’t answer questions because CBO hadn’t had time to analyze the new amendments. CBO has been working non-stop to analyze Baucus’s proposals and the amendments, but can only do so much so fast, said Elmendorf, who estimated his office could offer a preliminary estimate of a new version of the bill in a few days but would need around two weeks for a formal assessment.

This led to probably the most tension-filled moment of the afternoon, when Baucus asked, “We have to cool our heels for two or three weeks?” He then forcefully asked Elmendorf to “get us out of this box” and said “we can’t operate this way,” calling the two-week estimate “unacceptable.” Elmendorf seemed ruffled and said, “I assure you Senator we will be working as fast as we can,” but “that process invariably takes more time than people like me and you guess it will up front.”

The Finance Committee could vote on a bill without a formal assessment from CBO, but it could be politically risky for Baucus – Republicans will no doubt use the lack of a formal CBO analysis as fodder to criticize the speed at which Baucus is moving. All of this means the health reform legislative process is going to take longer than Democrats would like. Republicans, on the other hand, seized on this CBO timing bombshell as more proof Baucus is “rushing” the bill. (This was a theme throughout the day, especially in Republican opening statements.) Later in Tuesday’s session, Republican Senator Orin Hatch said, “What’s bothering me about this whole exercise is there’s such a rush to get things done with one-sixth of the United States economy…[the bill] has to be scored so at least we know what we’re doing.”

As the public area in the hearing room thinned out and staffers sitting behind senators started to look weary, Hatch and Baucus tussled when the chairman tried to cut off Hatch’s questioning of CBO staffers. The two began talking over each other, with Baucus eager to move on from CBO analysis to the hundreds of amendments filed. Hatch said, “I don’t want to clog or be obnoxious about this…but I’ve got plenty of questions that I think are legitimate.” Baucus insisted he wanted to get some amendments done before the hearing wrapped up, offering Hatch the chance to question CBO staffers after that. “I’ll stay here all night while you ask your questions,” said Baucus. Hatch eventually relented, but not before protesting strongly and urging Baucus to allow ample time for questions and debate as the committee moves forward to more amendments tomorrow.