POLITICS
08/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wyden Urges Dems To Keep Trying For Bipartisan Approach To Health Care

One of the key Democratic senators whose vote remains up for grabs when it comes to health care reform urged his colleagues to continue to push for a bipartisan bill, even as party leadership said it was time to give up on recuriting GOP support.

In an interview this week with the Huffington Post, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) maintained that there was still "great interest in the Finance Committee for a bipartisan bill on both sides of the aisle" and he urged lawmakers to continue to pursue a collaborative path. He would not comment directly on news that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had urged the Committee's Chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to drop efforts to attract Republican support. But he also didn't hide his own preferences.

"I'm committed to the priority that the president laid out," said Wyden. "I think the president got it right. He said 'I want to get it done this year' and he also indicated that his first choice is to have a bipartisan bill because he recognizes that a bipartisan bill allows the country to come together."

Asked whether he would support cloture on health care legislation that he would ultimately oppose -- so as to preempt a Republican filibuster -- Wyden was noncommittal.

"I'm going to just say that I think the president's right and I'm supportive of what the president said in terms of both a timetable and in dong something bipartisan," he said.

While Democrats both inside and outside of government say they expect Wyden ultimately to support the health care legislation put forth by the party, his most recent round of comments are likely to cause anxiety among progressives. The senator is one of a handful of Democrats whose thoughts on key components of reform have been difficult to pin down. On a public plan for insurance coverage, for instance, Wyden maintained that while he supports the concept, he could not commit to backing a bill because of one singular component.

"You just can't give a simple yes or no answer to that, because real health reform is so much bigger than its individual parts," he said. "And the reason I say that is that real reform means containing costs. Now the reason I'm open to a public option is that a public option is one way that could contain costs. But throughout my comments about health reform, I've never said I'm going to vote for health reform because of one component."

This type of wait-till-the-final-product approach extends to the legislation currently being crafted by the various committees in the Senate. Wyden sits on the Finance Committee, which has stalled in its efforts to produce a bill -- they are still, as The New Republic reports, trying to figure out ways to pay for reform. The HELP Committee is further along, marking up a bill that includes a somewhat limited public option and could extend coverage to 97 percent of all Americans. But Wyden said that he was worried with the legislation's potential costs.

"The $600 billion didn't involve the Medicaid additions," he said, "and it went to $1.2 trillion with that. I don't know if you've heard me outline this but I think the way the public starts this topic is by saying, 'Hey guys, you're spending enough on healthcare but you're not spending it in the right places.' And I think a big part of what health reform is all about unpacking ... showing that you can spend it more efficiently. You got to, I think, first show that you're going to squeeze more of the excessive and inefficiently spent dollars out of the system before you come up with a $1.2 trillion bill. Remember the $1.2 trillion is on top of the $2.5 trillion that's being spent now."

For all the consternation such remarks are likely to cause, Wyden does hold a unique distinction within the Democratic Party. His proposal for health care reform -- the Healthy Americans Act -- actually has public, bipartisan support, including the cosponsorship of Utah Republican, Sen. Bob Bennett. The bill, which would effectively do away with the employer-based system and replace it with state-run pools of different health care coverage, has supporters on the Hill and (at least privately) in the White House. It achieves 100 percent coverage without a massive government expansion.

But strategists intimately involved in the reform battle say there is no chance that Wyden's proposal will make its way to the president's desk. "Absolutely no chance whatsoever," said one Democratic strategist. "None. Zip."

That, however, hasn't diminished Wyden's efforts to move the debate in his direction. He noted with pride that over the course of 18 months, he and Peter Orszag -- then the head of the Congressional Budget Office and now the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget -- have tried out "various iterations" of new legislation that would be both efficient and effective. Recently, he added, another senator had come on board as a cosponsor -- Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.) -- which brings the number of lawmakers to14. Wyden even hints that his legislation has the president's support, too -- at least philosophically.

"[Obama] invited me to the White House a bit ago and made it clear that he had certain core principles that were very important to him. But he was very open and very flexible on the ways in which to deal with it. And I kidded him a little bit. I brought my copy of the Audacity of Hope and I showed him the section that describes giving people health care choices like (those available to) members of Congress and affordability," Wyden recalled. "I said, 'Mr. President, in the book it sounds like what you're for is the Healthy Americans Act.'"

As Wyden sees it, the key focus of the debate should remain on controlling costs in the private market, ensuring that consumers can keep their doctors regardless of what plan they enter, modernizing the medical system and providing incentives and subsidies for individuals to purchase insurance. To boil it down to an up or down vote on specific proposals, like a public option, he says, is to do a disservice to the health care debate.

"As I try to say, when I get asked about one of the individual components, it's very hard to give a yes or no answer, as much as people would like it," Wyden explains. "Real health reform is bigger than the sum of its parts."

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