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Baucus' baby

After a gestation rivaling an elephant's, Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, delivered a health-care reform bill on Wednesday. His progeny received a decidedly mixed reception.

Liberal Democrats decried its lack of a government-run insurance option and Republicans dismissed it entirely. The GOP half of the "gang of six" that had labored with Baucus for months to try to produce a bipartisan plan failed to embrace it. Even Sen. Olympia Snowe, the GOP senator most amenable to supporting it, was standoffish.

The White House, though, welcomed Baucus' blueprint because it incorporates much of what President Obama finally insisted on. At a cost of $856 billion over 10 years, it would cover about 95 percent of Americans. Everyone would be required to carry insurance -- tax credits would help lower-income people. Employers whose workers get subsidies would pay a fee.

The plan expands Medicaid eligibility, squeezes savings from Medicare and Medicaid and imposes a tax on insurance companies who offer expensive plans. Instead of the public insurance option, Baucus proposes nonprofit, member-owned cooperatives.

The bill is the least expensive of the five major bills Congress is considering. Indeed the Congressional Budget Office said it would decrease the budget deficit by $49 billion over 10 years and by even more after 2019.

Despite the tepid initial reaction, the Baucus bill stands the best chance of passing the Senate even though tweaks and substantive changes will alter its appearance considerably. Whatever the Senate produces will have to be revised to suit the more liberal Democratic majority in the House, which will also have moderate its wishes to suit the Senate.

Backers of rival approaches -- both on the left and the right -- will need to be persuaded of the charms of Baucus' baby and the political costs of letting it die.

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