Senate Panel Passes Democratic Health Bill

Senate Finance Committee member Olympia Snowe i i

Senate Finance Committee member Olympia Snowe (R-ME) confers with fellow committee member Jon Kyl (R-AZ) as Orrin Hatch (R-UT) looks on during the committee's Tuesday hearing regarding health care. Charles Dharapak/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Dharapak/AP
Senate Finance Committee member Olympia Snowe

Senate Finance Committee member Olympia Snowe (R-ME) confers with fellow committee member Jon Kyl (R-AZ) as Orrin Hatch (R-UT) looks on during the committee's Tuesday hearing regarding health care.

Charles Dharapak/AP

A pivotal Senate committee has approved a sweeping remake of the country's health care system, delivering a long-sought boost to President Obama's goal of expanding coverage.

The 14-9 vote in the Senate Finance Committee sets up a historic debate on the Senate floor and moves health care overhaul closer to reality than it has been for decades.

Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine cast the sole Republican "yes" vote. Earlier, she alluded to the historic nature of the vote when she told the committee of her intention to support the measure, saying, "When history calls, history calls."

In brief late-afternoon comments in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama hailed the committee's work and vowed that "we are going to get this done." But he said it was too early for self-congratulation, and characterized the committee's bill as "not perfect."

"We have a lot of work ahead of us," Obama said, adding, however, that because of the committee's effort, "we are now closer than ever before to passing health care reform."

Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), who shepherded the 10-year, $829 billion plan through the committee, said it was an answer to Americans' desire for a "common-sense, balanced solution."

"I think that's what we've provided," he said.

Snowe's backing gives the health care overhaul legislation a patina of bipartisanship after a bruising months-long debate on Capitol Hill, in town hall meetings across the country, and after a last-minute broadside from the insurance industry. She is the first Republican to vote in favor of the bill.

Even so, the Maine Republican made clear that her vote on the committee was no guarantee for the future.

"My vote today is my vote today," she said. "It doesn't forecast what my vote will be tomorrow."

The Finance Committee's top Republican, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, gave voice to the GOP's concerns about the bill.

"We can now see clearly that the bill continues its march leftward," he said. "This bill is already moving on a slippery slope to more government control of health care."

The Finance Committee is the last of five congressional panels to craft versions of legislation that would fundamentally alter the country's $2.5 trillion medical system. Finance is the panel whose moderate makeup most closely resembles the Senate as a whole, and its centrist measure is seen as the best building block for a compromise plan that could find favor on the Senate floor.

The bill now moves into a phase of deal-making in which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), working with Baucus, White House staff and others, will blend it with a version passed by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Unlike the other health care bills in Congress, Baucus' would not allow the government to sell insurance in competition with private companies — the so-called public option. Proponents say a public option will bring down costs by forcing the insurance industry to be more competitive, while opponents say it's tantamount to socialized medicine and will add significantly to government deficits.

Some version of a public plan could wind up in the merged Senate bill, and House Democrats are working on legislation that includes a public option. Floor action is expected in both chambers in coming weeks. If passed, the legislation would then go to a conference committee to reconcile differences.

On Monday, Democrats and their allies rushed to rebut what the White House described as a "distorted and flawed" insurance industry report. The findings, released Sunday by America's Health Insurance Plans, an industry trade group, stated that the Senate Finance Committee bill would increase health insurance premiums.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accounting firm that did the industry-commissioned analysis, acknowledged Monday that it did not look at the entirety of the legislation, only the effects of four provisions that the group wanted analyzed.

But for others, the Senate Finance Committee's bill doesn't go far enough.

About 30 unions will run a full-page ad in newspapers Wednesday announcing their opposition to the measure, a top labor lobbyist said.

The ad will state, "Real health care reform and nothing less," according to Chuck Loveless, legislative director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Labor has been a major Democratic ally in the health care debate but is unhappy that the legislation lacks the public option. Officials also want it to prevent insurance companies from refusing to cover some people and to force employers to cover their workers.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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