WASHINGTON (CNN) – President Barack Obama's opposition to taxing employer-provided health benefits has slowed progress on passing a health care reform bill, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee complained Thursday.
"Basically, the president is not helping us," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, after emerging from closed talks on the bill.
Baucus' criticism came on the same day the head of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said the health reform bills moving through Congress won't reduce long-term health care costs - in part because the bills don't include taxes on health benefits.
The comments by CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf provided ammunition for Republican opponents of the two Democratic-sponsored measures made public so far - one passed Wednesday by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and one proposed this week by House Democrats.
"I don't see any Republicans that have any interest in voting to ration care for their constituents, raise costs to their constituents, and put the federal government in charge of the best health care system in the world," said House Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio.
In the Senate, Baucus is one of seven bipartisan members of the Senate Finance Committee who have been meeting for weeks trying to negotiate health care reform. Taxing the employer-provided benefits - which are currently excluded from taxation - had been the principal way Baucus wanted to raise $320 billion to help pay for the trillion-dollar health overhaul.
It was also considered a key way to reduce costs because tax-free benefits encourage more spending on health care, many experts believe.
"With the tax exclusion off the table, it's difficult to come up with revenue measures and other savings measures," Baucus said. "We are clearly going to find ways to bend the cost curve in the right direction. That is, include provisions that actually vary the rate of increase in health care costs."
White House spokesman Bill Burton said Obama was committed to "getting stakeholders to the table, finding different ways to save money and produce the revenue that we need for comprehensive health care reform."
"Once we get something through the House and through the Senate, we'll be able to go to conference and really put the rubber to the road and get something done," Burton said, referring to a conference committee comprising members of both chambers that would create a compromise bill.
Testifying earlier on the long-term budget outlook, Elmendorf said trying to lower costs without taxing benefits was like "tying one of the two hands behind one's back."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bluntly dismissed Elmendorf for appearing to take a position on a political issue.
"What he should do maybe is run for Congress," Reid said.
Rep. Mike Ross, D-Arkansas, a key leader of the conservative Democratic group known as Blue Dogs, told reporters he shares Elmendorf's concerns, saying: "That's what we've been trying to tell everyone for three months."
Ross said opposition to the initial Democratic plans for health care reform has extended beyond his group to other Democrats.
"No way they can pass this bill on the House floor now," he said. "No way. Not even close."
Boehner leveled particular criticism at proposed tax surcharges on the wealthy contained in the House bill. The surcharges intended to raise $550 billion over 10 years start at 1 percent for people reporting income of more than $350,000, go to 1.5 percent for those with income of more than $500,000 and climb to 5.4 percent for those with income of more than $1 million.
"This will kill jobs in America and make it more difficult for people to hire more people," Boehner said, adding that the measure would harm small business owners. "You just can't continue to tax employment and tax employers and think you're going to get more jobs. It doesn't work that way."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said Thursday she would willing to lower the amount of the surtaxes if more savings from proposed reforms can cover the cost of the bill.
"If we can get more savings, we can perhaps lower the percentage that the high end will pay," Pelosi said at her weekly press conference.
But Pelosi made it clear that Democrats still plan to tax the rich and said if the money isn't needed to pay for health care it would be directed at the nation's budget deficit.
"There is going to be a revenue change at the high end," she said. "It will be directly to reduce the deficit or to reduce the deficit by helping to cover the cost of this initiative."
Pelosi also said she is willing to make further cost-cutting changes to the bill to satisfy the Blue Dog Democrats such as Ross.