A group of 10 senators — five Republicans and five Democrats — told President Bush on Tuesday that they have agreed on a blueprint for increasing health insurance coverage, and they would like to work with him on it.
The White House, hoping to generate some positive momentum for the president’s domestic agenda, quickly took the lawmakers up on their offer. Spokesman Tony Fratto said the senator’s letter was unique in the current political climate and he hoped that meetings with the senators’ staff could begin soon.
The senators said they disagreed that the Senate is too divided to pass comprehensive health care legislation. Their blueprint, while vague on many points, contains two proposals that are essential, said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
The first point was a “big lift” for Republicans, he said. It acknowledges that legislation should ensure that all Americans have affordable, quality health insurance, while protecting current government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
The second point required compromise from Democrats, he said, because they agreed with Bush that the current federal tax rules for health insurance disproportionately favor the rich while promoting inefficiency.
Bush has proposed a major shift in tax policy that would, for the first time, treat health insurance costs as taxable income. The result is that workers’ taxable wages would shoot up dramatically.
But then the president calls for a standard tax deduction for those who buy health insurance _ $15,000 for family coverage and $7,500 for individual coverage. The result is that most people would see a tax break at first.
Wyden said the lawmakers were not endorsing the president’s tax proposal. They only acknowledged that the current tax rules were problematic.
Allan Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council, said Bush was committed to working with the lawmakers.
“The president put his health care proposal forward in the State of the U nion. These senators are taking that proposal seriously, and we look forward to working with them to find common ground,” Hubbard said.
However, many Democratic leaders have criticized the president’s tax proposal, and many have predicted little chance of major health care legislation passing before the next election.
In a joint statement two weeks ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that health care is a crisis when it comes to costs and coverage “and the president’s plan will make both fronts worse for millions of Americans.”
The 10 senators who wrote Bush were Democratic Sens. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Ken Salazar of Colorado, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, and Wyden, and Republican Sens. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, Robert Bennett of Utah, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Trent Lott of Mississippi and John Thune of South Dakota.