WASHINGTON - Senators closing in on a comprehensive health care bill have whittled away all but the most contentious issues, and one of those loomed large Friday: coverage for illegal immigrants.
Negotiators on the Senate Finance Committee thought they had already resolved the question. That was before Republican Rep. Joe Wilson's shout of "You lie!" as President Barack Obama said in a speech Wednesday that illegal immigrants wouldn't be covered under his health plan.
That led senators to make sure they have provisions in place to enforce prohibitions against illegal residents getting federally subsidized coverage.
"What we are trying to prevent is anyone who is here illegally from getting any federal benefit," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a member of the so-called Gang of Six of three Democrat and three Republican members of the Finance Committee. The group is facing a deadline early next week to produce a bipartisan deal.
If they don't succeed, Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., plans to go it alone with a Democratic bill. "We'll find out who wants to support the (bill) and who doesn't," Baucus said Friday.
Baucus' plan largely mirrors what Obama laid out in his speech Wednesday: expansion of coverage to most of the nearly 50 million uninsured, new requirements for individuals to obtain insurance, new prohibitions against insurance company practices like denying coverage based on personal health history and creation of a new marketplace called an exchange where consumers could shop for different health plans.
If Congress ends up creating a new government-run insurance plan, it would be offered through the exchange, but unlike the four partisan bills that have emerged from committees in the House and Senate so far, Baucus' bill will substitute nonprofit co-ops for the public plan.
The White House says that Obama does not want illegal immigrants to be able to buy insurance through the exchange as they would be allowed to do under Democratic legislation in the House. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said the White House would work with lawmakers on language to enforce that.
Republicans' contention that illegal immigrants would be able to get federally funded health coverage under the House health bill led to the outburst from South Carolina's Wilson.