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GOP Renews Push For Small Business Health Insurance Bill January 10, 2007

Posted by notapundit in Congress, Politics, US News.
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WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)–Congressional Republicans are hoping to use the political power of U.S. small businesses to resurrect a business-sought health care bill now that Democrats are in charge.

Democrats are eager to prove they can do a better job than Republicans in governing and in passing bipartisan bills in particular. And nothing short of apple pie and baseball enjoys more bipartisan support in Congress than the U.S. small businesses.

Coupled with Democrats’ desire to address the continued crisis of accelerating health care and health-insurance costs, this urge to cooperate has many Republicans hoping they can pass the health insurance bill that escaped them when they controlled Congress.

The bill would allow smaller businesses to band together to purchase health insurance, but would preempt key state laws from paving the way.

The proposal has been around for more than a decade and a version of the bill passed the House 263-to-165 in 2005. In the Senate last spring, a majority, 55 of 98 senators voting, backed the bill, but the measure needed 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster, and so remained stalled for the remainder of the year.

Consumer groups say the bill would undercut workers’ access to health benefits and drive up health-care costs for companies with older or unhealthier employees.

Those groups, state and local governments, and even a handful of business groups are opposed to the bill.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Businesses, say the bill would allow companies to control health-care costs and increase the number of employees covered by health insurance.

The Congressional Budget Office says the impact of the bill would be relatively modest.

Premiums for companies in so-called small group markets would fall an average of about 2% to 3%, CBO said. Nationwide, the bill would likely result in another 600,000 workers getting health insurance, CBO said.

In the House, Democrats are refusing to debate the idea at all, blocking a Republican effort to add the bill to legislation increasing the federal minimum wage.

House Education and Workforce Committee ranking Republican Howard McKeon, of California, said he is frustrated, but hoped that House Democrats would lift the embargo when they begin negotiating with the Senate on a final version of the minimum wage bill.

“I would love to be involved in those discussions,” McKeon said.

Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., is having better luck in the Senate, where he has begun negotiations with seven Democrats, including Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., is also involved in the talks, according to an aide to the Senate Health Committee, where Enzi is the top-ranking Republican.

But Enzi said he would rather not try to add the provision to a minimum wage increase, which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., would like the Senate to begin debating within weeks.

“We are making progress on (the health insurance bill), there is no reason to force it,” Enzi said.

“There are a lot of stakeholders, formally quite aggressively at odds, who now are closer to being on the same page than ever before,” said the Health Committee aide.

The aide said several in Enzi’s group want to combine some form of small business health insurance pooling with a package of “fiscally responsible and policy-sound tax-based relief to low-income (workers) and small businesses.”

Democrats and some more liberal Republicans would like the proposal amended to preempt fewer state laws, including those setting minimum benefits standards.

Speaking to reporters last week, Durbin said he thought a compromise could be reached. He and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., have written their own health insurance pooling bill based on the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan.

But Durbin also wondered aloud whether Republicans would really want to send the bill to negotiations with the more liberal House.

Starting a free-ranging discussion on health care could give Republicans far more than they bargained for, Durbin said.

By John Godfrey, Dow Jones Newswires

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