Merkley bullish, Wyden quiet on latest Senate bill

— The latest version of the health care reform bill caused a minor role reversal for Oregon’s Democratic U.S. senators on Thursday.

Soft-spoken Sen. Jeff Merkley pronounced himself “very pleased” with the bill, unveiled late Wednesday in the Senate, while the normally loquacious Sen. Ron Wyden avoided commenting on the massive bill.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the final version of the Senate health care reform bill would insure 31 million more Americans and decrease the federal deficit by $130 billion over the next decade.

But the bill also raises taxes on high-cost insurance plans, and the nonpartisan agency that operates Medicare and Medicaid has questioned whether all of the bill’s cost-saving measures would remain in effect.

In October, Wyden had loudly denounced an earlier version of the bill, then in the Senate Finance Committee, for failing to give most Americans a choice of insurance plans, but he couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday.

He ultimately voted for that bill in committee, after saying he had secured an agreement from committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., to fight for at least a limited version of Wyden’s Free Choice proposal.

Wyden’s proposal would have let people who spend more than a certain percentage of their income on employer-provided insurance buy coverage through the government-regulated insurance exchanges. They would have received help from the government or an employer subsidy.

That wasn’t in the bill that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada released Wednesday evening. Wyden’s office didn’t issue a statement, but in a brief e-mail, Communications Director Jennifer Hoelzer said Wyden was working on getting something added to the bill.

“Negotiations are intense,” Hoelzer said. “Access to the exchange isn’t enough if we don’t help them pay for policies in the exchange.”

In an interview between Senate votes on Thursday, Merkley said he’s pleased Reid included a public insurance option that would let individual states opt out of the plan. Merkley was one of the early proponents of that strategy to win votes from centrist Democrats.

“It really says to every senator that if your concern is your folks back in your state might not see this as advantageous, that we will force this on no single state,” Merkley said. “It is an effective way to bring the caucus together.”

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