On Monday afternoon, critics of a major health care overhaul seized on a report from the Congressional Budget Office showing that a Democratic reform bill could cost $1 trillion over ten years despite adding only 17 million Americans to the ranks of the insured. But the results are incomplete, and they know it.
The CBO findings made for a traditional attack based around fears that the government would spend larges swaths of taxpayer money with minimum systematic change.
"CBO makes it clear -- the Democrats' plan will force millions of Americans to lose the care they have now," Sen. Mike Enzi, the ranking Republican on the Senate HELP Committee, said in a statement. "Anyone who says that if you like the care you have, you can keep it under this bill doesn't have their facts straight."
House Minority Leader John Boehner sent out an email alert on the report, saying the Democrats "costly plan is exposed." His colleague, Minority Whip Eric Cantor, meanwhile said the CBO score card was "troubling when we're trying to save money that we would be calling for that kind of expenditure."
The CBO's findings, however, are for an incomplete piece of legislation, making the cost-per-coverage estimates much worse than they will ultimately be. Republicans on the committee knew this, according to Democrats. But they pushed for the bill to be studied by the CBO now. And when poor results came back, they ran with them.
"The reality is there are still some outstanding issues, including employer responsibility and a public insurance option," said a Democratic aide to a committee member. "Those are two outstanding issues. So what we did in a good faith effort to find bipartisan consensus, we did not include those elements because we are trying to find common ground. But Republicans wanted there to be a score even though, the reality is, if there is an incomplete bill you will have an incomplete statement."
Another Democratic aide to the HELP Committee member concurred, adding that Sen. Ted Kennedy's office, in an effort to "find bipartisan consensus with Republicans colleagues" filed the bill and allowed it to be scored by the CBO -- not expecting it to be used as partisan fodder.
Asked about these complaints, Enzi's spokesman Mike Mahaffey called his boss' statement "absolutely fair."
"This is a report from the CBO saying that it is going to cost a trillion dollars and it is only going to ensure net increase of 17 million patients," he added. "We are not the ones that scheduled a Wednesday markup before the bill is complete and the CBO report is complete."
Democrats both inside and out of government, while cognizant that the CBO's findings did not fully reflect the final bill, were nevertheless distraught that the numbers were now out in the public sphere.
"My impression was that for all the lawyers around, they didn't follow the first principle which is don't ask the question you don't know the answer to," said one high-ranking Hill aide.
Indeed, in private, White House officials were shaking their head at the development. Publicly, press secretary Robert Gibbs sought to distance the president from the legislation. In a statement after the CBO report release, he said, "this is not the Administration's bill."
The CBO's findings do create politically bad optics. In the end, however, the situation could be remedied when a full analysis is released sometime in the next week. Once the bill is scored with a stronger individual and/or employer mandate for coverage, as well as various other details, HELP Committee members fully expect the cost-per-coverage breakdown to improve significantly. For now, progressive activists in the health care debate are holding their breath, hoping that the next CBO findings have more resonance.
"If this was a true reflection of the bill, it would be bad," said one operative. "But it's not -- it's more like they graded a test halfway through the testing period. HELP is rushing language back to them and are hoping for new projections (that include employer and individual mandate) by Friday. That's pretty pie in the sky, I fear. They will revise it though."