THE BAUCUS PLAN…. It’s just a first step, and there are all kinds of political and policy details yet to come, but Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) healthcare blueprint, unveiled today, is a very big deal. It’s not entirely in line with the specifics of the Obama plan, as outlined during the campaign, but Baucus intends to push a policy that would guarantee health insurance for all Americans, expand expanding Medicaid and Medicare, and apparently include a healthcare mandate on individuals, with subsidies for those who can’t afford insurance.

“Every American has a right to affordable, high-quality health care,” Mr. Baucus said. “Americans cannot wait any longer.” Far from being a distraction from efforts to revive the economy, he said, “health reform is an essential part of restoring America’s economy and maintaining our competitiveness.”

Mr. Baucus would create a nationwide marketplace, a “health insurance exchange,” where people could compare and buy insurance policies. The options would include private insurance policies and a new public plan similar to Medicare. Insurers could no longer deny coverage to people who had been sick. Congress would also limit insurers’ ability to charge higher premiums because of a person’s age or prior illness.

People would have a duty to obtain coverage when affordable options were available to all through employers or through the insurance exchange. This obligation “would be enforced, possibly through the tax system,” the plan says.

Paul Krugman noted, “[T]his looks very good for the reformers. There’s now a reasonable chance that universal health care will be enacted next year!” Families USA executive director Ronald Pollack added, “The prospects for meaningful health care reform have never looked better.”

Jonathan Cohn compares and contrasts Baucus’ proposal with Obama’s; Ezra Klein suggests the plan “looks like Obama Plus” (with an individual mandate, without a public insurer); Blue Girl takes a look at some of the political considerations of the upcoming debate; and Igor Volsky gets into “the guts” of the Baucus plan, including how he’d pay for it.

Baucus’ blueprint is also online here.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.