Amid the furious coverage of Sen. Max Baucus' effort in the Senate Finance Committee to produce a bipartisan health care bill, the media have missed one important fact: there is already a Senate health reform bill.
For instance, describing the status of health care reform in Congress during a recent NPR special report, Robert Siegel described the Senate's "progress" as "glacial," pointing only to negotiations among the Finance Committee's Gang of Six:
SIEGEL (host): Congress adjourned with things in a muddle. Both chambers failed to meet President Obama's ambitious timetable: one bill in each house before they left town. There was some progress. In the House, three committees approved revised versions of the original bill, H.R. 3200 America's Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009. The three bills have to be merged into one, with floor debate and a vote possible this fall. Over in the Senate progress was glacial. The Gang of Six, three Democrats and three Republicans on the Finance Committee met daily through much of July to craft a bipartisan compromise. They left town without reaching an agreement.
In their September 8 Washington Post article, Paul Kane, Ben Pershing and Perry Bacon, Jr. wrote that the Senate "has been stalled all summer" on health reform.
Many Democrats do not want the House to act until they know what will happen in the Senate. That chamber has been stalled all summer as a bipartisan group of six senators on the Finance Committee has tried to reach a compromise that does not include a public option, costs much less than the $1.2 trillion House version and does not include a surtax on the wealthy.
If the Senate bill does not include a public option, many House Democrats will not want to vote for it in their version, because it would be unlikely to survive a House-Senate conference on the two measures.
Contrary to the media narrative that the Senate has "been stalled" and that its "progress" been "glacial," there is in fact a Senate health bill. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed a bill in mid July, The Affordable Health Choices Act, which then-Chairman Ted Kennedy praised:
"I could not be prouder of our Committee. We have done the hard work that the American people sent us here to do. We have considered hundreds of proposals. Where we have been able to reach principled compromise, we have done so. Where we have not been able to resolve our differences, we have treated those with whom we disagree with respect and patience," Chairman Kennedy said. "As we move from our committee room to the Senate floor, we must continue the search for solutions that unite us, so that the great promise of quality affordable health care for all can be fulfilled."
The HELP bill includes a public option, employer mandate, and subsidies that people making up to 400% of the poverty line can use to purchase insurance. Combined with an expansion of Medicaid (which the HELP committee lacks the authority to include in legislation), 97% of Americans would be covered under the bill.
This is not a simple, technical oversight on the part of NPR and The Post. Disappearing the HELP bill is a problem because it creates the false impression that the Finance Committee alone speaks for the Senate, and that House and Senate Democrats are not on the same page about what health reform means -- all of which baselessly boosts the importance of whatever the Finance Committee eventually produces.
In reality, the bill that Finance will drop, which Baucus' legislative framework indicates will exclude a public option, is the congressional outlier, not the standard-setter. Indeed, like the House bill that has moved through three committees in that chamber, the HELP bill includes a public option. Baucus' framework has not been scored by the Congressional Budget Office, but, like the House bill, the HELP bill has been scored -- twice. And Baucus' framework at best only represents the work of six of 23 senators on his committee. By contrast, both the HELP and House bills were actually voted and passed by full committees, and before the August recess at that.
So in the media's continuing coverage of the machinations of the Finance Committee, maybe they could provide this fact-based perspective to their listeners, viewers and readers. It doesn't make for the sexy, conflict-based narrative that they do so love, but it does make for real journalism.