What Baucus and Grassley are up to

WHAT BAUCUS AND GRASSLEY ARE UP TO…. The good news is, the Senate Finance Committee, which has held up health care reform efforts, is nearing the end of its negotiations. The bad news is, the negotiators have apparently come up with a bad bill.

The New York Times reports today on the ongoing talks between six committee members — Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Ranking Member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.), and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) — who reportedly agree on the broad outline of a bipartisan plan.

The group, which includes no genuine progressives and is made up entirely of senators from states with no major urban areas, seem to have no use for liberal benchmark measures.

Already, the group of six has tossed aside the idea of a government-run insurance plan that would compete with private insurers, which the president supports but Republicans said was a deal-breaker. Instead, they are proposing a network of private, nonprofit cooperatives.

They have also dismissed the House Democratic plan to pay for the bill’s roughly $1 trillion, 10-year cost partly with an income surtax on high earners. The three Republicans have insisted that any new taxes come from within the health care arena. As one option, Democrats have proposed taxing high-end insurance plans with values exceeding $25,000.

The Senate group also seems prepared to drop a requirement, included in other versions of the legislation, that employers offer coverage to their workers.

The AP is reporting similar details — no public option, no employer mandate, no millionaire surtax.

The co-ops are an inadequate substitute for a public option, which Baucus had vowed to “fight tooth and nail” for. Moreover, the elimination of an employer mandate makes holding down costs that much more difficult.

Baucus, in other words, has prioritized Republican support for a bill over the quality of the bill, and has given up on some of the key priorities Democrats, including the president, have prioritized from the outset.

Of course, we still don’t know when, exactly, the Finance Committee might actually produce a bill, or what the whole Finance Committee will think of the work of these six negotiators. For that matter, the really tricky part will be trying to merge this Republican-friendly bill with the HELP committee’s already-approved legislation, which is both ambitious and progressive.

And for added fun, note that there are plenty of center-left Democrats who’ve said they won’t be able to support a final bill if it lacks a public option.