"Repeat after me," TNR's health care wizard Jonathan Cohn exclaims, "This is only a partial estimate."  Cohn's referring to the Congressional Budget Office's preliminary score of the Senate HELP committee's health care plan. Cohn's exactly right:

But wait. The Senate HELP bill is not yet finished. Like the house design without the plumbing, wiring, and roof, the HELP bill is missing several key elements that would dramatically change the final estimate.

The most important of these, by far, is the employer mandate--that is, the requirement that employers either pay for their workers' coverage or pay the cost of covering them through a new insurance exchange, set up and run by the government. The HELP bill has a big blank in the employer mandate, because it was an area over which the committees Democrats and Repbulicans were still negotiating when the committee submitted its language

Let's extend Cohn's analogy. Imagine, if you will, that you're trying to sell another house on the block, and this ugly partially-finished monster sits on the lot next to yours. You certainly would do your best way to wait until the eyesore was finished -- and therefore was less of an eyesore -- before you brought potential buyers around.

Privately, most Democrats will tell you that the HELP plan is not the plan to watch in the Senate; that'd be the Finance Committee's draft legislation, due out very soon. So it might not matter what the CBO's HELP score is, even though elements of the legislation will be very similar.

But you can't blame the Republican Party for finding a way to exploit the partial release. Given the ease with which the CBO numbers are digested on Capitol Hill, the GOP now has a significant talking point, one that's reflected in news coverage already: the President says health care will be revenue-neutral, but the Kennedy plan in the Senate would add at least $1.3 trillion to the deficit...and wouldn't cover half of the uninsured!   Sure, the bill's a work in progress, but it could get worse, right?  You can see the ads now: a melifluous voice asking "Can we really afford to spend 1.3 trillion dollars?"

After reading the report, a senior Republican Senate aide e-mailed me: "So, the main things the President claimed today--it will be fully paid for, people can keep the coverage they like and currently have--don't seem to be operable under the current proposal."

The actual Senate Democratic proposal may differ considerably from the HELP plan, but this predecisional period is quite important so far as setting the contours of the debate. The president's defensiveness about the "public plan" option, his float of medical malpractice insurance reform and his insistence that Amercians who like their health care can stick with the status quo suggest that there is a greater political opening for Republicans than some polls might suggest.

White House officials wouldn't speak about the CBO score yesterday, but I can't imagine they're happy with the timing.

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