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Deals Not Enough To Derail Health Bill

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
       WASHINGTON — New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman on Wednesday criticized special deals that Democratic leaders struck with some senators to win support for a sweeping Senate health care bill headed for passage today.
    But the two Democrats said the deals weren't enough to justify voting against a measure they said would benefit New Mexicans.
    Senate leaders offered Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, 100 percent federal subsidies for new Medicaid beneficiaries added to his state's rolls under the Senate legislation. Other senators wrangled separate financial concessions for their states in exchange for their support for the Senate bill.
    Final passage by the Senate is expected early today.
    Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., has called the deal-making "sleazy."
    Bingaman and Udall, in a joint conference call with New Mexico reporters on Wednesday, said they did not support such deal-making in exchange for votes, but also said they weren't asked their opinion of the deals by Senate leaders before they were struck.
    "I wasn't consulted on the deal," Udall said. "If I was asked if I thought they were a good idea, I would say no — we should be focusing on the policy."
    "I don't think, frankly, that any of them are of a magnitude that justify opposing the legislation by any means," Bingaman said.
    There were no special concessions made for New Mexico in exchange for votes of support, the senators said.
    According to Udall, the Senate health care overhaul would eventually insure 91 percent of New Mexicans, improve rural health care and grant permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, among other things.
    New Mexico and some other states with large numbers of low-income residents would receive 100 percent federal funding for its new Medicaid beneficiaries for three years, and 95 percent after that. That figure, based on a national formula, was negotiated well before deals were made with Nelson and other senators.
    Bingaman's office said this week that it remains unclear how much extra federal money New Mexico stands to receive as a result of a Medicaid expansion expected to add 125,000 people. A Bingaman health care staffer said the senator's office is seeking an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Service. The amount, however, would apparently be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
    Assuming the Senate passes its health care bill today, Senate leaders must still negotiate a compromise with the House. The Senate bill does not include a so-called public health insurance option fought for by many Democrats. The House version does.
    Bingaman has repeatedly said that, although he supports a public option and has voted for it in committee, a health bill including the option cannot pass the Senate.
    Jude McCartin, Bingaman's spokeswoman, said Wednesday that it is unlikely Senate Democrats would agree to include a public option in the final bill because it could not subsequently pass the chamber. The public option proposal has already failed in the Senate, she noted.
    Udall, who has been unwilling to concede that a public health insurance option is doomed, appeared to soften that stance on Wednesday.
    "We're going to be able to build on what we put in place," Udall told reporters. "In the days ahead, I'd like to fight for a strong, robust public option.
    "We need to put this (bill) in place and work on additional reforms," Udall said.
    On another controversy, New Mexico's senators downplayed new information released by the Congressional Budget Office that said its analysis of Medicare savings in the bill was mistakenly inflated.
    Bingaman and Udall said the mistake was minor and does not contradict Democrats' assertion that the health care bill would reduce the federal deficit in the years to come.
    Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., raised the Medicare savings issue on the Senate floor Wednesday morning. He said the CBO effectively counted Medicare savings twice in its analysis on the health care bill's effect on the federal deficit. CBO noted its own mistake in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
    "Correcting that error has no impact on the estimated effects of the legislation during the 2010â"2019 period," CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf wrote. "However, the correction reduces the degree to which the legislation would lower federal deficits in the decade after 2019."
    Elmendorf said that, with the "corrected reading," Medicare savings would increase from 10 percent to 15 percent between 2020 and 2029, instead of the nearly 15 percent initially estimated.
    "It was a very minor issue," Udall said.
    Elmendorf said the CBO expects that the legislation would reduce federal budget deficits from 2019 to 2029 between one-quarter percent and one-half percent of gross domestic product.
    "In comparison, the extrapolations in the initial estimate implied a reduction in deficits in the 2020â"2029 period that would be in a broad range around one-half percent of GDP," Elmendorf said.

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