The political fight over health care will continue this year despite congressional approval last month of the sweeping reform plan, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Wednesday.
"The health care bill is obviously going to be changed as people find out what is in it," Sen. Alexander said during a meeting Wednesday with reporters and editors at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. "Parts of it are going to be repealed, and there is going to be a great debate about it."
But there is room for bipartisan support on some issues looming before Congress, including the environment and education.
Sen. Alexander, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, said he expects opposition to the changes will grow over time as Medicare Advantage programs are cut. He predicted that insurance premiums and taxes also will go up under the changes signed into law last week by President Obama, which should prompt more opposition.
In Tennessee, more than 243,000 enrollees in Medicare Advantage plans will see changes in their plans this year, Sen. Alexander said. Over the next decade, the state also will have to absorb another $1.1 billion to pay for its portion of TennCare benefits to more than 200,000 more Tennesseans - "another unfunded mandate that will force a tax increase, cuts in education or both," he said.
But Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Chip Forrester said Sen. Alexander "is flat wrong" about the politics of health care reform.
"We firmly believe that, as time goes on, people will actually realize the benefits from these changes for their families," he said. "The country will clearly be helped by what Congress approved."
Mr. Forrester said extra prescription drug benefits for some seniors, the end of insurance cutoffs for those with pre-existing conditions and extended health care coverage for young adults up to age 26 should make the health reforms popular with most Tennesseans.
Despite the partisan split over health care reform, however, Sen. Alexander said he sees room this year for bipartisan legislation on clean air changes, energy incentives and education reform.
Sen. Alexander said his clean air bill, introduced with Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., "is a strong clean air bill that will give Chattanooga some help with strict limits on sulfur, nitrogen and mercury" emissions from coal plants.
During a luncheon appearance at the Hamilton Place Rotary Club, Sen. Alexander said President Obama "appears to be warming up" to Republican-backed ideas to encourage more nuclear power, natural gas exploration, energy research and development and electric cars and trucks.
He praised the proposal the president made Wednesday to allow more offshore oil and gas drilling.
"Those are low-cost steps to a clean energy policy which Republicans have advocated, and the president seems to be moving in that direction," he said.
Sen. Alexander, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, also is working on a bipartisan reform of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and he praised the White House for the "Race to the Top" incentive plan that will pump $500 million into Tennessee schools over the next two years.
But Mr. Forrester called such support "hypocritical and appalling" after Sen. Alexander voted against the stimulus package last year that funded the extra federal education aid to the states.