Health Care Bill Faces Fierce Debate In Senate

After months of debate and delay, the Senate Finance Committee passed a health care overhaul bill Tuesday. All 13 Democrats on the committee and one Republican, Olympia Snowe, voted in favor. Nine Republicans voted against. The finance committee bill has no public option, and although Democrats say they plan to add one when it's combined with other bills in committee, they may risk losing support from moderate Republicans like Snowe.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

President Obama cautioned his supporters yesterday that this was no time for celebration. He said that, even though a health care plan finally took a big step in the Senate.

MONTAGNE: The Senate Finance Committee approved its bill. That clears the way for debate by the full Senate, and that is why any celebration might be early. Democrats still have a fierce debate with Republicans and among themselves over how to shape the plan.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: Not one Republican voted for any of the other four health care bills passed in committee. And Democrats had clearly wanted at least one bill they could point to as bipartisan. Yesterday that's what they got when Maine Republican Olympia Snowe broke ranks with her GOP colleagues and voted for the Senate Finance Committee's bill. A few hours later, President Obama stepped out into the Rose Garden to hail that bill's passage.

President BARACK OBAMA: It includes ideas from both Democrats and Republicans, which is why it enjoys the support of people from both parties. And I want to particularly thank Senator Olympia Snowe for both the political courage and the seriousness of purpose that she has demonstrated throughout this process.

WELNA: On the Senate floor, Majority Leader Harry Reid heaped further praise on the breakout Republican from Maine.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): We have one brave soul who voted to get the bill out of the Finance Committee, and I appreciate her work.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): My vote today is my vote today. It doesn't forecast what my vote will be tomorrow.

WELNA: That was Senator Snowe, as she informed the Finance Committee she was backing its bill. Snowe clearly intends to keep Democratic leaders guessing about how much further they can count on her support. When history calls, she told the panel, history calls. But, history also seemed to be telling Snowe significant alterations could lie ahead for the bill she decided to support.

Sen. SNOWE: I do it with reservations, because I share my Republican colleagues' trepidations about what will transpire on the Senate floor, what will emerge in the House/Senate conference, and how indeed the Finance Committee bill will be merged with the health bill.

WELNA: The Health Committee's bill is much more to the liking of liberals, but Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus vowed after the vote yesterday that he'd do all he could to preserve the essential elements of his bill - no public option, no employer mandate, and a 10 year price tag below $900 billon.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): We need 60 votes. We need to get a bill, after the merger, that's going to get 60 votes.

WELNA: But Kansas Republican Pat Roberts warned others on the committee to brace themselves for the bill Majority Leader Reid and others must now cobble together.

Senator PAT ROBERTS (Republican, Kansas): I do have news for my colleagues. This bill - the so-called moderate health care reform bill - will not be the bill that we will see in the next few weeks that will come to the Senate floor.

WELNA: That bill, according to Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, is on a march leftward.

Senator CHUCK GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): It will be clear that this bill is already moving on a slippery slope to more and more government control of health care.

WELNA: Indeed, Democrats on the finance panel made no bones about their determination to add government sponsored health insurance to the bill, including New York's Chuck Schumer.

Senator CHUCK SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): To cut costs, we must have a public option in the final bill. It is the most effective way to cut insurance costs, period.

WELNA: Still, adding a public option could alienate not just Republican Snowe but also some of the Senate's more conservative Democrats. One of them is Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln, who faces a tough reelection bid next year.

Senator BLANCHE LINCOLN (Democrat, Arkansas): I just hope that we will remember that Americans out there are frightened. I know in my home state during the month of August, and in those town hall meetings, it was clear - they're alarmed. They're alarmed about our deficit in this country, as they should be. And they are alarmed about big bills that are difficult for them to understand.

WELNA: President Obama acknowledged yesterday that significant disagreements must still be worked out, but he also sought to dispel any doubts about where the health care overhaul is headed.

Pres. OBAMA: We are going to get this done.

WELNA: We are now closer than ever before to passing health reform, he said, before adding: But we're not there yet.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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