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Bunning wants health care bills, costs online

WASHINGTON — The push for greater transparency by Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., as lawmakers stitch together health care reform legislation is gaining momentum.

Bunning and a growing group of Senate Republicans and moderate Democrats are pressing congressional leadership this week to post the measures online, giving the electorate a chance to read bills before votes are cast.

A resolution offered Wednesday by Bunning would change Senate rules to require that all legislation, along with a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, be made publicly available 72 hours before consideration on the Senate floor or in committee.

Bunning's measure is, in part, a response to complaints constituents lodged during this summer's contentious health care town halls. Some argued that lawmakers and the public hadn't been given the chance to properly vet health care overhaul bills.

"If you wonder why Congress has such a low esteem rating during the August recess, that's one of the prime things we've heard," Bunning said Wednesday.

Critics who argue that his proposal would dramatically slow the legislative process and needlessly confuse the average citizen are being disingenuous, he said. "They put down the American people, saying no one understands legislative language."

Bunning's resolution is a continuation of his failed effort in the Senate Finance Committee two weeks ago to have the health care bill scored by the Congressional Budget Office and made publicly available three days before the committee vote. Bunning's proposal was defeated by one vote along partisan lines. Moderate Democrat Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas joined Republicans in support of the proposal.

The Finance Committee relies on conceptual language — a condensed version of legislation — when considering measures. The committee's Republicans acknowledged that they never protested the practice during previous presidential administrations but pointed out that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have complained about the need for greater transparency, particularly on measures that spend billions of dollars.

Now, Bunning is invoking President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign pledge of greater government transparency as the Kentucky lawmaker takes his efforts to the larger congressional body.

"I call on President Obama, who came into office on a platform of transparency in government, to urge his former colleague, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to immediately take up this legislation," Bunning said. "The American people want it, and as we wade into the health care debate, passage of this commonsense resolution will be critical."

Reid's office has said the process for considering health care reform has been transparent and will remain so moving forward.

On Wednesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., cited a new budget office analysis of his committee's health care bill as evidence that the committee has worked openly and efficiently. The analysis shows that the bill would result in health insurance coverage for 94 percent of the nation, cost $829 billion and reduce the federal deficit by $81 billion from 2010 to 2019.

"Our balanced approach to health reform has paid off yet again with the news today that the America's Healthy Future Act remains fully paid for, begins to reduce the federal deficit within 10 years and makes significant reductions in federal debt over the next several decades," Baucus said.

Meanwhile, at least eight moderate Senate Democrats are also pushing leadership to post the health care reform legislation and budget office scores on the Internet for 72 hours before votes are cast. The Democratic group included Lincoln, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Evan Bayh of Indiana, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Jim Webb of Virginia, as well as Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.

"Whether or not our constituents agree with the direction of the debate, many are frustrated and lacking accurate information on the emerging proposals in Congress," the senators wrote to Reid earlier this week. "We believe the American public's participation in this process is critical to our overall success of creating a bill that lowers health care costs and offers access to quality and affordable health care for all Americans."

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