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Senators spar on health bill's effect on seniors

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WASHINGTON — Republicans argued health legislation would hurt seniors and Democrats said it would do nothing of the sort as the Senate Finance Committee resumed debate Wednesday on a bill to remake the nation's health care system.

The second day of Chairman Max Baucus' meeting on his nearly $900 billion, 10-year bill to enact President Barack Obama's top domestic priority got off to a slow start. The debate over seniors came only after hours of discussion on a GOP amendment providing for making bill language public ahead of a vote.

It failed narrowly, but Republicans succeeded in showing they were prepared to drag out one issue after another and test Baucus' goal of getting the legislation through his committee by the end of this week.

On seniors, Republicans contended that some $500 billion in cuts to Medicare providers over a decade to pay for the bill would surely reduce patients' benefits. That's something Obama has repeatedly denied, though he was contradicted on the point by the head of the Congressional Budget Office Tuesday.

Budget Director Douglas Elmendorf said the cuts could reduce the generous benefits that the seniors in Medicare's private managed care plans enjoy.

GOP senators pushed amendments Wednesday meant to block the bill's proposed changes to Medicare.

It's "disingenuous to say Congress can cut this much spending from Medicare without having an adverse affect on seniors' access to care," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

Baucus disputed that, saying Kyl's amendment "hurts seniors, because the effect of the underlying bill is to help reduce health care costs."

Baucus fought off amendments on Medicare from Kyl and Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., ruling them out of order on technical points.

The Finance Committee is the only congressional committee with jurisdiction that has yet to approve a health overhaul bill, so committee approval would clear the way for action within a week or so on the Senate floor. Across the Capitol, majority Democrats are working on the same timeline as they push for a vote in the House.

Democrats were in the delicate position of trying to make health insurance more affordable for millions of Americans while holding down spending.

Baucus' legislation, built along the lines Obama is seeking, aims to extend coverage to most uninsured Americans, expand protections for those already covered and generally reduce the ruinous growth in medical costs nationwide.

He got encouraging words Wednesday from a centrist Democrat whose support could be important, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Lincoln said she only wants to support legislation that reduces the deficit and holds down long-term costs. Baucus' bill, she said, "does meet these very important goals ... setting us on a sustainable path for the future."

Lincoln was the only Democrat to side with the GOP on an amendment that would have required legislative language to be available online 72 hours ahead of committee action on the health overhaul bill. That amendment failed 12-11, underscoring the delicacy of Baucus' narrow majority in the committee made up of 13 Democrats and 10 Republicans.

Republicans are raising a slew of questions, from the legislation's cost to its basic constitutionality, and only a few amendments out of 564 pending have been dealt with.

In a sign of the tensions evoked by the bill, several committee Democrats called for increasing the rebates that drug companies must pay the government for certain low-income patients. That would breach an agreement among the White House, Baucus and drug makers under which drug companies have agreed to pay $80 billion toward the cost of a health overhaul, including reducing prescription drug prices for some seniors.

Baucus' bill is the most conservative, and cheapest, of five bills in Congress, and as a result committee Democrats and the one Republican whose vote Baucus is courting – Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine – had concerns about whether it did enough to make insurance affordable for people who will face a new requirement to buy it.

Baucus announced $50 billion in changes Tuesday to address that issue. The most significant would sweeten the subsidies for individuals and families with incomes up to four times the government's poverty level – which would work out to be $43,320 for individuals and $88,200 for a family of four. Baucus also decided to reduce the penalty for families who defy a proposed requirement to purchase coverage, from $3,800 to $1,900.

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Associated Press writers David Espo and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.