The Senate Thursday evening approved an expansion of a popular children's medical insurance program, clearing the way to give President Obama a high-profile down payment on his promise of universal health care coverage.
"The day the President signs this legislation ... will be a signature accomplishment of this Congress and the new administration," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
The Senate passed the $32 billion measure to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, by a vote of 66-32. Eight Republicans and two independents supported the bill, while no Democrats voted against it.
The bill next will be sent to the House, which approved an almost identical bill earlier this month. The chambers are expected to quickly approve a final version in the coming days and send it to Mr. Obama, who has promise to sign the measure.
"As the worsening economy causes families to lose their jobs and health insurance, it is vital that we redouble our efforts to ensure that every child in America has access to affordable health care," the president said moments after the bill passed the Senate. SCHIP "will serve as a down payment on my commitment to ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable health care."
The Democrat-crafted proposal would add about 4 million children to the 7 million already covered in the federal-state initiative for families that don't qualify for health care through Medicaid but can't afford private insurance.
The measure would extend funding to the program - set to expire at the end of March - for another 4 1/2 years. The expansion would be financed with a 61-cent tax on cigarette packs.
Similar proposed expansions twice passed Congress in 2007 with significant bipartisan support but were vetoed by President Bush, who said they were too costly, would cover some adults and children in middle-class families and would be paid for, in part, with a tax increase.
Many Republicans were upset with a change in the latest version that would allow states to end the five-year waiting period for low-income, uninsured children who are legal residents. Republicans also complained the bill doesn't provide enough assurances that the poorest children will covered in the program first, and that some middle class families could quality.
"Democrats are making it clear that they intend to use our economic crisis to rush through their longtime liberal goals without public scrutiny or debate," said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. "This will increase burdens on taxpayers and take a significant step toward socialized medicine."
But groups ranging from pharmaceutical companies, business organizations and labor unions applauded the Senate's action.
"Strengthening the health care safety net is an essential component of comprehensive health care reform," said Karen Ignagni, president and chief executive of America's Health Insurance Plans, the nation's largest health insurance lobbying group.
Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of Service Employees International Union, the nation's largest union of health care workers, called the Senate's action a first and important step to rebuilding the American Dream."