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Partisan splits show in health care debate

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Democrats' plans to start the health care debate by taking up supposedly noncontroversial portions of a Senate bill backfired Thursday, devolving into partisan bickering and highlighting the tough hurdles ahead for President Obama's goal for historic health care reform.

During the first full day of debates over the bill in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, some amendment votes were split on partisan lines as Republicans pushed to ban certain medical research and require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to financially account for the bill.

Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee met again behind closed doors Thursday, working on a bill that's now behind their self-imposed schedule but considered Congress' best hope at a bipartisan bill. Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said he's confident the committee will pass one, saying "the comfort level [with their bill] is getting better and better all the time."

In the House, the three committees with jurisdiction over health care -- Ways and Means, Education and Labor, and Energy and Commerce -- are expected to release a draft of their bill as early as Friday. The bill is expected to include a public insurance option.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, acting chairman of the HELP Committee in Chairman Edward M. Kennedy's absence, said midday that he's trying to keep the slew of amendments -- more than 300, most from Republicans accused of trying to stall the process -- moving and vowed to press on despite the slow start.

"Certainly, stalling it is not helping it at this point. My job is to be fair and to keep the process moving forward," he said. "I'd love to have bipartisan support on the committee ... but my goal here is to write a good bill."

Sen. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, ranking Republican on the committee, said the minority party has been largely left out of the process but said he was hopeful after the afternoon session.

The committee passed 18 amendments to the section of the bill that focuses on wellness.

Republicans proposed amendments that would restrict comparative effectiveness research -- medical research to determine the most effectives cures or treatments of diseases -- over concerns that it would lead to rationing health care and a plan to require the GAO to account for the bill -- something the group doesn't do.

Both failed on party-line votes.

The HELP Committee is expected to meet every weekday until the Fourth of July recess to mark up the rest of the 615-page bill and flesh out the portions of the bill that haven't been determined, including whether it will include mandates on employers or individuals and how it will be paid for.

Much of the controversy in the committee is centered on incomplete estimates as to how much the bill is going to cost. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that the bill will cost $1 trillion and still leave about 36 million people uninsured. But that estimate was based on an incomplete bill and doesn't account for prevention and wellness measures that Democrats say will save money.

Mr. Dodd said Thursday that the CBO accounting system is incomplete.

"I have great respect for the Congressional Budget Office. But this is not Mount Olympus," he said. "Their numbers are helpful, but I'm not going to write a bill only because it has to pass some unnamed people down at CBO."

The bill must be budget neutral, per Mr. Obama's orders, a stamp of approval that only CBO can provide.

Representatives from the CBO attended a Finance Committee meeting Thursday, a move Mr. Baucus said was helpful as the committee tries to slim down the price of its plan.

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