House to Vote on Own Stimulus Bill as Talks Deadlock
Negotiations on an economic stimulus bill "moved to the brink of collapse" yesterday, with Republicans and Democrats still "deeply divided" over provisions to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance, the New York Times reports (Stevenson, New York Times, 12/19). House Republicans have scheduled a vote today on a revised version of a bill that the House passed earlier this year (Hook, Los Angeles Times, 12/19). The revised legislation includes $33 billion to extend unemployment benefits and provide tax credits to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance. By contrast, the legislation passed by the House in October provided $13 billion in unemployment benefits (New York Times, 12/19). The October measure addressed health care coverage by including a $3 billion funding increase for the Social Services Block Grant program to allow states to provide insurance to unemployed workers (California Healthline, 10/29). Republicans hope that the new bill will "garner support from centrist Democrats" in the Senate or allow their party to "lay blame on Democrats" in the event that the full Congress does not pass an economic stimulus bill this year (Kuhnhenn, Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/19). However, Democrats criticized the move as a "political stunt that would undermine any remaining chance of a deal." The New York Times reports that the new House legislation "has almost no chance of winning" the votes to pass in the Senate (New York Times, 12/19). House leaders hope that President Bush can "round up enough moderate Democrats to eke out" a Senate victory in a visit to Capitol Hill scheduled for this morning.
Earlier yesterday, hopes for an agreement on an economic stimulus bill "appeared to brighten" after Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) offered a provision that would allow unemployed workers to "buy into an existing group health plan," such as the Federal Employee Health Benefits Program, state employee health plans and the CHIP program (Murray/McKinnon, Wall Street Journal, 12/19). The proposal would "give individuals access to health associations that pool insurance risks of thousands of people." Bush administration officials called the plan a "good idea," but said that "by itself it would limit choice and may not be easy to implement quickly" (Kessler/Eilperin, Washington Post, 12/19). Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) also "reacted coolly" to the Baucus proposal and "continued to insist" on a GOP proposal to provide individual tax credits for unemployed workers (Wall Street Journal, 12/19). Democrats, however, said that tax credits would "leave unemployed workers little leverage" with insurers and "demanded that the subsidies be delivered" through employer-sponsored health plans instead (New York Times, 12/19). Democrats have proposed a 75% subsidy to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance through COBRA and funds to allow states to extend Medicaid coverage to unemployed workers who do not qualify for the program. COBRA, the 1986 Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, allows unemployed workers to retain health coverage under their former employers' insurance plans by paying 102% of the premiums (California Healthline, 12/14).
Meanwhile, Bush yesterday "personally wooed" moderate Senate Democrats to support a compromise proposal that he offered last week. The plan was negotiated with Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), but Breaux "has won little support" from other Democrats (Washington Post, 12/19). The Bush proposal includes a $30 billion provision to extend unemployment benefits by 13 weeks and provides an "advanceable" 50% tax credit -- up to $294 a month for families -- to help unemployed workers purchase health insurance (California Healthline, 12/13). Republicans have offered to increase the tax credits to cover 60% of health care costs. White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer said, "Under the bipartisan plan the president is proposing, 100% of health care assistance goes to those who've lost their jobs," adding that under the plan proposed by Senate Democrats, "More than half ... goes instead to workers who either take early retirement or voluntarily leave their jobs." Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said, however, that "unemployed workers are not guaranteed the ability to purchase health insurance in the open market" (Sammon/Boyer, Washington Times, 12/19). In addition, they said that unemployed workers "might not benefit from group coverage prices that they would enjoy" under COBRA or Medicaid and criticized the plan as an "attempt to move" the entire health system from employer-based" care to tax credits (Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/19). In general, Baucus said that "prospects look grim" for a bill this year (Washington Times, 12/19). Negotiators have scheduled no meetings for today (New York Times, 12/19).