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Is It the Stimulus Battle All Over Again?

Olympia Snowe deserves a lot of credit for her work on health reform this year. Despite enormous pressure from her party, she's continued to negotiate with Democrats in good faith. As I've said before, her interest in passing health care reform--and making health reform work--seems sincere. And her record on this issue is reasonably good, particularly by Republican standards. Within the Finance committee, she's actually been more determined than some Democrats to craft a plan that guarantees relatively generous benefits.

But generous benefits require money to pay for them. And that's where Snowe has been conspicuously unhelpful: In the past few months, she's signalled an unwilingness to put enough money on the table. After President Obama's Wednesday speech, she did it again.

Obama has said reform should cost around $900 billion--a figure, as I and others have explained, that's the bare minimum of what it takes to cover most people and cover them well. Snowe has said she'd prefer "800 billion or below."

Why $800 billion? It's totally arbitrary, as Steve Benen explains:

Ideally, we'd have policymakers identify the problem, come up with a solution, and then figure out how to pay for it. Instead, we have a few too many policymakers come up with a price tag first, whether it's sufficient in solving the problem or not.... (b)ecause it just sounds better. Less is necessarily superior to more, the argument goes, for vague, personal reasons that have nothing to do with addressing the problem at hand.

I realize we're talking about a lot of money here, but the difference between a $900 billion reform package and an $800 billion package is $10 billion a year. Given the size of the U.S. economy, the federal government's budget, and the willingness of lawmakers to spend freely when it was debt-financed Bush-era initiatives on the line, an additional $10 billion a year to help Americans have quality, affordable health coverage is more than reasonable.

Making health care reform worse, based on nothing but capricious standards on what price tags sound nice is absurd.

Absurd indeed. But it's way the discussion is going. And I'm not confident about the administration's willingness, or ability, to change things.