WASHINGTON — At least two Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee have refused to pledge support for the health care reform bill scheduled for a vote this week, underscoring the hard work ahead for President Barack Obama as he tries to enact the most ambitious domestic policy legislation in more than a generation.
Although Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he has the votes to pass the 10-year, $900 billion bill out of committee, Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., remained undecided Sunday. If all 10 Republicans on the panel vote no, two Democratic defections would be enough to send Baucus and the Obama White House scrambling to regroup.
"More needs to be done to hold insurance companies accountable, to hold premiums down for the American people," Wyden said in an interview Sunday. "I want to continue these discussions."
Committee defeat of the bill is an unlikely scenario, but one that highlights the immense power every Senate Democrat — and perhaps a few Republicans — holds going forward in a process that could stretch beyond Thanksgiving.
Wyden, like many other Democrats, has begun intensive talks with administration officials and with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who must blend the finance bill and a version approved by the health committee for the full Senate to consider.
To assemble the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, Obama needs to hold every Democrat and Independent in the Senate.
He has assiduously courted them and Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, considered the most likely Republican to support sweeping health care reform. Snowe, a member of the Finance Committee, voted with Democrats on several key amendments but has remained coy about her intentions.
Last week Obama held one-on-one meetings at the White House with Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Mary Landrieu, D-La. Virtually every day, he speaks by telephone to his former Senate colleagues, largely listening rather than making promises, according to administration and congressional aides familiar with the conversations.
Obama has dispatched budget director Peter Orszag, health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle and other aides to Capitol Hill.
Overall, the Baucus bill would extend coverage to about 30 million Americans who now lack it, provide tax credits to some small businesses and working families to buy insurance through a new marketplace called an exchange, and tighten restrictions on insurance underwriting practices. A final committee vote will come after the Congressional Budget Office releases cost projections.